- An Education Movement for Democracy
Together, Publicly Engaged Scholars and Dilemmas of Educational Ethics suggest the remarkable fruitfulness and continuing challenges of a fledgling democracy movement in K–12 and higher education—a movement in which their editors have been active. Meira Levinson, professor of education at Harvard and coeditor of Dilemmas, wrote the highly regarded No Citizen Left Behind about empowering civic education practices in K–12 schools, while coeditor Jacob Fay developed advising services for New Jersey eight-graders before entering Harvard's program for Early Career Scholars in the New Civics. John Saltmarsh, director of the New England Resource Center for Higher Education—a prominent leader in higher education's civic engagement efforts—has mentored many young scholar-practitioners in that field, including Nick Longo, Margaret Post, and Elaine Ward, the three coeditors of Publicly Engaged Scholars. [End Page 332]
Their latest efforts are welcome. Today's public discussion of democracy's discontents largely continues the civic renewal movement's pattern of inattention to higher education, which Thomas Ehrlich noted nearly two decades ago.1 We remain equally short of details regarding what democratic K–12 education looks like, or should look like, when attentive to the role of power and politics in their sociological rather than Manichean conceptions.
Both reviewed books demonstrate what many have been content to assume, namely, that education is indeed a promising arena for democratic reform. Specifically, strategies to democratize educational institutions hold potential to address two intertwined forces undermining democracy: the spread of marketplace ways of thinking and acting, or what authors in these collections call "neoliberalism," across society; and the operation of technocratic dynamics that disempower citizens by eroding what Sara Evans and I have called free spaces—public settings where people develop the civic muscle to be participants in governance rather than spectators.
Alarm about democracy is growing.2 "Warning signs [are] flashing red," as Amanda Taub put it in the New York Times.3 Feeding democracy's discontents is the long decline in associations of civil society and an equally long-term trend of rising inequality.4 Recent years have witnessed large-scale and often disorienting responses. Protests and insurgent election campaigns against growing inequality clash with the revival of racism's "sleeping ghosts"5 and emboldening of other bigotries in many societies. Yet as Ethan Zuckerman has shown (and as I noted in the previous issue of the Good Society) neither the left nor the right have mobilized an effective challenge to the neoliberal and technocratic status quo.6
Consequently, political theorist (and member of the Good Society editorial board) Archon Fung has called for widening our view of change beyond protests and elections to include efforts aimed at "reweaving the social fabric" through broad-based community organizations. Yet as Fung noted in his essay "Can Social Movements Save Democracy?" many of the best candidates for such work have yet to undertake it. The majority of community organizations focus on reorganizing and politicizing existing pockets of social capital, especially religious congregations networks. These social movement approaches rarely "generate more social capital where little exists." Nor do they generate change in large institutions. Even if they are marvelously successful, social movements aimed at mobilizing and expanding a pre-existing constituency can only hope to count a relatively small fraction of the population among their [End Page 333] members and supporters. A worthy democratic revitalization must reach further than social movements … it must engage and transform the state itself"7 But how?
Consumerism and Public Work
Wide democratic revitalization must include education as a site of democracy. And to change education requires a political approach that revitalizes the public dimensions of work—a central theme in the history of democratic education and American democracy generally, but little regarded by a culture that honors the pursuit of private rather than public goods.8 The Trump campaign and presidency, including his education policy, exemplify the spreading contempt for the...