Public Colleges and Democracy*

By Muzzin, Linda; Meaghan, Diane | The Innovation Journal, January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Public Colleges and Democracy*


Muzzin, Linda, Meaghan, Diane, The Innovation Journal


ABSTRACT

Classical liberal democratic theorists stressed that, although formal democracy with a universal franchise was all but inevitable, the success of the democratic experiment depended upon the growth of an educated andinformed electorate. An essential element in the development of civic competence among voters is accessibility to public educational institutions. This article examines three innovative contributions made by Canadian colleges to practices of equity that bring gendered, racialized power relations into view. Based on recent visits to fifty campuses, we argue first that public colleges have a good record in opening access for those students previously excluded from postsecondary education and in tackling the challenging problem of literacy education which is basic for democratic participation; however, they face enduringdifficulties in providing liberal arts education for their students and in recruiting faculty from underserved groups. While college literacy teachers are devoted and skilled educators, they do not feel supported by their administrations in the difficult task of engaging and educating socially oppressed students. Finally, although enrolment statistics suggest that the liberal arts and civic education are alive and well in Canada, we raise a suspicion that education for the practice of democracy through exposure to the liberal arts-including critical analysis inhistoryand the social sciences-falls far short of itspotential.

Keywords: equity, colleges, restructuring, literacy, faculty, marginalized groups, democracy

Introduction

We, in Canada, live in an undemocratic moment in our country's history when the son of an oil company executive from a province held captive by the industry has been voted into office as our prime minister (Engler, 2012). His disdain for public institutions such as parliament is palpable; and he has launched what has been called an 'assault on scientific knowledge' through reducing academic research funding for environmental scientists (Academic Matters, May 2013). His approach contrasts with President Obama's responsiveness to public outcries about the plans of the oil industry. Panitch and Gindin (2012) have argued that transnational corporations want to keep the public system in place for their benefit, and part of our concern is that public institutions are being hollowed out to serve corporate interests such as the oil industry. We are feminist anti-racist sociologists who know that power relations in the society are glossed in the problematic word 'democracy.' For one thing, 'equality' is a word associated with democracy, but we know that it is not a level playing field for women, racialized minorities or the poor. We call ourselves 'equity' theorists in recognition of broadening the definition of democracy to take these power relations into account.

Classical democratic theory advocates a robust and active citizenry engaged in a process of self-governance in which the people are represented by elected politicians who are, in some fashion, responsible to the people who elected them. The Anglo-American democracies generally regard themselves as the originators and among the most mature examples of modern democratic governance. Their sentiments are expressed in the antique phrasing of the Magna Charta (1215), stirring words of the American Declaration of Independence (1776), Britain's Great Reform Bill of 1832 and the British North America Act of Canadian confederation (1867). Arguably with universal manhood suffrage in place from the outset, these countries with their diverse institutions but common political philosophies are exemplars of an approach to politics and government that wins widespread recognition.

The flowery prose of these founding texts, however, hid reservations about whether these experiments in democracy would work, with English reformer John Stuart Mill urging that every effort be made to educate citizens to the responsibilities of the vote. …

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