Participants in, Not Spectators to, Democracy: The Discourse on Civic Responsibility in Higher Education

By Williams, Dilafruz R. | Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Participants in, Not Spectators to, Democracy: The Discourse on Civic Responsibility in Higher Education


Williams, Dilafruz R., Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning


Civic Responsibility in Higher Education

Thomas Ehrlich

Phoenix Arizona: Oryx Press

"What, after all, is the public under present conditions? What are the reasons for its eclipse? What hinders it from finding and identifying itself? By what means shall its inchoate and amorphous estate be organized into effective political action relevant to present social needs and opportunities?" John Dewey confronted these questions in The Public and its Problems (1927, pp. 125-126) over seven decades ago. Concerned about the "eclipse of the public" in democracy along with the "apathy of the electorate," he acknowledged the role of scientific advancement with its physical tools of communication in disintegrating the small communities of former times. While accepting modern progress and its inevitable links to democratic forms of government worldwide, Dewey, nonetheless, viewed scientific advancement as a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it produced opportunities for people to communicate and associate in different ways; on the other hand, it distanced people from their locale, thereby fracturing the formation of community. No longer did people stay in one place, and therefore, no longer were the traditional forms of living in community possible.

Democracy, for Dewey (1927), required "associated or joint activity" as a condition for the creation of community. But, he wrote, "association itself is physical and organic, while communal life is moral, that is emotionally, intellectually, consciously sustained" (p. 151). It was through interactions among diverse forms of community that democracy could remain vital (Dewey, 1914). Always "in-the-making," the practice of democracy is a way of life--social, individual, and political. This requires a public that is actively participating, not simply spectating.

Reminiscent of Dewey, Thomas Ehrlich (2000), in his recent edited book, Civic Responsibility and Higher Education, challenges us to confront the decline and disengagement in democracy vis-a-vis political participation in the United States in our present context and times. Under the large, inclusive umbrella of "civic responsibility," this book is a 400-page collection of 19 essays written by prominent professionals representing a broad cross-section of the higher education community, including representatives of various colleges and universities as well as national organizations. Civic Responsibility and Higher Education contains a critique of the present landscape of higher education, one driven by market forces and pulled in a variety of directions to satisfy its consumers. Its contributors lament that what is lost in the emergent reductionist and utilitarian sensibility of higher education is a discussion of what it means to be "educated" in a democratic society. To counter this trend, Ehrlich and his colleagues challenge us to bring to the center of the discourse on higher education its civic and moral role.

However, at present, higher education is in a double-bind. In an era of decreasing public funding and support, it needs to satisfy the market for its very survival, while simultaneously providing an avenue to critically examine the political and social forces that are shaping its mission. By imploring us not to take democracy for granted, Ehrlich and his colleagues hope to re-couple higher education's responsibility and accountability with the creation of a reflective public capable of sound judgment. Neither alarmist nor simply critical, this volume also presents constructive practices to re-engage higher education with community. In what follows, I will extract the major themes that are woven in these rich essays and also suggest some ways to further the discourse of civic responsibility in higher education.

The Project of Democracy

Undergirding this book's proposals for civic responsibility is the revival of colleges and universities as "agents of democracy. …

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Participants in, Not Spectators to, Democracy: The Discourse on Civic Responsibility in Higher Education
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