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Reviewed by:
  • Democracy’s Education: Public Work, Citizenship, and the Future of Colleges and Universities ed. by Harry C. Boyte
  • John McGowan
Harry C. Boyte, ed. Democracy’s Education: Public Work, Citizenship, and the Future of Colleges and Universities. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2015. 300 pp.

Everybody knows American higher education is under siege. Switching the metaphor, Paul Markham of the Gates Foundation calls it the “avalanche”: “Senior administrators are increasingly pressed to deal with issues such as affordability, access, retention, and alignment with job markets” (251). The various stakeholders in higher education, students least vocal among them, want an immediate return on investment as the cost of an education continues to rise. Public universities, in particular, are in dire straits as the willingness to subsidize, out of the public coffers, higher education wanes. The basic demand is clear: more degrees delivered at a lower cost and those degrees should be directly tied to occupations valued by the market.

None of this will be news to anyone who has been paying even cursory attention. On the campuses themselves, administrators struggle mightily to respond to these new pressures without completely gutting the educational and research missions of their universities, while faculty mostly piss and moan about how bad things are and about how cowardly their senior leadership is. I have done my fair share of complaining. It just seems an objective fact that conditions on our campuses for both students and teachers are worse than they were in 1970 (adjunct faculty and student debt are just two indicators of the decline). And the overarching political and economic conditions within which higher education operates and students must navigate their movement from college to career are undoubtedly much tougher.

So what are you going to do about it, that’s what I’d like to know. The volume under review devotes a fair amount of time to documenting how bad things are. But, refreshingly, it spends much more time talking about work currently being done that works against the prevailing ethos of the student as customer. Harry C. Boyte has spent years preaching the gospel of participatory democracy. With the help of the Kettering Foundation, he has done more than preach. He has inspired—and helped to organize, fund, and publicize—various initiatives that would promote his essentially Deweyean vision. That vision has three crucial components: first, it rests on an ideal of robust democratic citizenship. A fully flourishing democracy is one where citizens take their lives into their own hands, forming voluntary associations that do the work they see as needing doing. Instead of passively handing over such chores to the state—and reducing their civic action to voting in periodic elections—these citizens do the public work themselves, in cooperation with various others. Second, education in such a democracy should be geared toward creating such active citizens, giving them concrete experiences of working in concert with others in collective problem-solving and imparting to them along the way the skills required to get things done. Finally, full-scale participatory democracy will never be achieved until the workplace, where citizens spend so much of their lives, becomes a site for [End Page 587] such cooperative, active enterprise. Passivity in the workplace breeds (or, at least, complements) passivity in the political sphere.

With this agenda in place, Boyte sees colleges and universities as uniquely placed to advance it. Of course, he admits that the mission of education to foster democratic citizenship has waned under current conditions, a development he deplores. But he also, rightly in my view, recognizes that, even under current conditions, higher education retains an autonomy just about completely unparalleled in our society. Only the rich foundations have more freedom. We educators still control the curriculum (unlike our K-12 counterparts) and we have access to fairly substantial resources. In short, where else is active citizenship more likely to be modeled? It is up to us, the professors, to turn our workplace into the kind of participatory showcase of democracy that will not only include but inspire our students even as it makes our work more meaningful and enjoyable. Boyte wants us to trade in the lonely life of the CV...


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pp. 587-589
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