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  • Jean K. Quam, Dean of the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development
  • Heidi Fahning (bio)

Ever since her early days as a nursing-home aide, Dr. Jean K. Quam, Dean of the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD) at the University of Minnesota, has structured her professional life around improving lives and fostering a good society. That dual focus explains both the multi-year Improving Lives campaign she launched and now oversees at CEHD and her decision, in June 2016, to make CEHD the institutional sponsor of The Good Society.1

Recently, Dean Quam reflected on how her personal professional experiences have influenced her vision of the important roles that university students, faculty, and the broader community can and should play in contributing to a more civic-minded and inclusive society. Despite their variety, those roles, in her view, are essentially interpersonal: all require taking time to sit down with, listen to, and care about individuals as the unique and autonomous, yet socially constituted and embedded beings they are.

This approach stems from Quam's experience in the 1970s as an outreach social worker in rural Iowa. Her charge was to alert and connect people to recently enacted government benefits and services. For Quam, this seemingly simple act of linking individuals to the state through direct personal engagement opened up new possibilities for bettering society on the molecular level of our daily common life. As a rural outreach worker, she found it necessary to "start where the client is" and facilitate opportunities to bring out the best in the people she encountered, rather than focus on their deficits as defined by distant experts. In Quam's words, "positively affecting one [End Page 138] person is just as important as devising good policy—and can lead to greater policy change." In other words, the collaborative work of improving lives cannot wait upon the good society, but rather is essential to achieving and sustaining it.

At their best, the academic curricula, student programming, and community partnerships that have emerged and thrived at CEHD under Dean Quam's leadership reflect and promote this relational civic ethos. Ideally, Quam says, "colleges don't impose improvements on society, but rather share opportunities to get people more engaged in improving society themselves." In her eyes, it is important to expose students and members of the university community to as many opportunities to engage with others as possible. Thus, CEHD classrooms should be spaces in which diverse individuals can share, reflect on, challenge, and refine their various, and at times conflicting, ideas. They should also energize their occupants to go out and work with others to create similar sites throughout society. Accordingly, students and faculty alike conduct research and construct programs intended to facilitate parent engagement in classrooms, foster confidence and mindfulness in young children, encourage critical tolerance and respectful honesty across cultural and ideological divides, and promote strong, healthy behaviors in general and in communities all around the world.2

Indeed, Quam's vision of civic learning, research, and practice reflects the simultaneously far-flung and densely local networks that shape contemporary life. At any given moment, she notes, one group of CEHD students and faculty might be bussing around the Twin Cities hearing the personal stories and communal histories of their Native American neighbors, while others might be traveling in Kenya, or Jamaica, or Singapore to compare education, health, or criminal-justice systems and practices with those they know or wish to understand at home. These and other immersive experiences, Quam maintains, are essential to expose students to different ways of thinking and different modes of practice, both formal and informal. That exposure, in turn, brings insight and imagination to students' efforts to understand the physical, social, emotional, and psychological variety of human experience—an understanding that is critical to negotiating productive relationships in a pluralistic society. When asked to suggest ways that CEHD students can prepare themselves for active citizenship and begin to work toward a more civic-minded society, Dean Quam advised them not to "shortchange education" by limiting it to class time. Instead, she suggested, students should take advantage of the multitude of opportunities the university offers to...


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pp. 138-141
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