Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Can Service-Learning Help Restore the Public University's Role in Safeguarding American Democracy?

Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Can Service-Learning Help Restore the Public University's Role in Safeguarding American Democracy?

Article excerpt

Service-learning in Design and Planning: Education at the Boundaries

Tom Angotti, Cheryl Doble, & Paula Horrigan, Editors

Oakland, CA: New Village Press, 2011

Arguably, the essential conditions of democracy--limited extremes of wealth and poverty, citizenship oriented toward advancing the public good, equal opportunity structures and practices, citizens reasonably discerning of the forces shaping their lives--are all under assault (Brown, 2011). And the university, so "uniquely woven into the fabric of American democracy ... by history, mission, and concept" (Burkhardt & Joslin, 2012, p. 72), has become part of the problem rather than the means to address it. Consider three intersecting trends affecting American democracy and the university's role within it: growing income inequality, declining civic participation, and increasing corporatization of higher education.

Income inequality in the United States has been on the rise since the 1980s, when the Reagan administration slashed aid to the poor, offered generous tax breaks to the wealthy, and exported the jobs that provided a ladder into the middle class (Ehrenreich, 1990). The growing extremes in rich and poor seriously erode the essential conditions of democracy, undermining the possibility that the national polity will consist of equal voices rallying around shared interests (Brown, 2011). During the same period, as the wealthy few expanded their power, the disenfranchised many dropped out altogether as civic engagement--indicated by participation in voluntary associations and political processes--plummeted, further jeopardizing American democracy (D'Agostino, 2008). Meanwhile, the university, traditionally charged with cultivating an engaged citizenry, lost sight of its broader social purpose as it began emulating the ethos of the corporate world (Harpham, 2011; Readings, 1996).

As early as 1963, after a post-war surge in scientific research, the role of higher education shifted from knowledge for knowledge's sake toward "sponsored research, innovation, and productivity" (Harpham, 2011, p. 47). In this new corporatized university, salary inequality increased across all levels of employment--from presidents and athletic coaches to administrators and faculty in disciplines of varied status and on to the administrative staff and custodians who guarantee operations; "unproductive" departments vanished as high-paid administrative positions proliferated; faculty governance and intellectual property rights came under assault (Harpham); and distance learning became the mechanism of choice to enable further downsizing of an already-glutted professoriate. Adopting a consumerist view of education, the public university began repositioning itself as:

... a business whose primary purpose is to drive economic growth and whose activities are expected to be profitable. As such, its mission is increasingly oriented toward servicing a private sector whose shifting human capital requirements are now visibly at odds with any nationally defined public interest. (Lye, Newfield, & Vernon, 2011, pp. 1-2)

At the very moment that American democracy calls out for an engaged citizenry capable of mending this deeply divided one nation, indivisible (Palmer, 2005), "public higher education ... is increasingly structured to entrench rather than redress class trajectories, abjure the project of producing an educated public, and facilitate capital accumulation over all other values" (Brown, 2011, p. 24). And yet, a counterforce has been gathering--some even call it a movement--as "centers of 'civic engagement' and 'service-learning' continue to crop up on campuses across the country despite pressure to focus only on leading students to the job market" (Burkhardt & Joslin, 2012, p. 73). Is it possible that a few committed faculty and students can join forces with communities devastated by global capitalism to resist the corporatization of the public university? …

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