Democracy and Community Colleges
November 2013, Volume 26, Number 11
By Bernie Ronan
The lasting legacy of the commission convened by President Harry Truman in 1947 to study the role of higher education in America was the creation of a national system of community colleges. These colleges were designed to bring higher education to America's communities, by making college accessible to the vast majority of America's people. The report further states that:
The social role of education in a democratic society is at once to insure equal liberty and equal opportunity to differing individuals and groups, and to enable the citizens to understand, appraise, and redirect forces, men (sic), and events as these tend to strengthen or to weaken their liberties. (Truman Commission on Higher Education, 1947)
This citation, from what has come to be called the Truman Report, speaks of a dualism in the social role of these uniquely American creations: Community colleges were to democratize by making higher education's equal opportunity available to all, as well as by teaching all students how to participate as citizens. If this dual destiny is to be realized, equality of opportunity, what has come to be called access, must be pursued by community colleges as avidly as teaching students the knowledge and skills required for lives of democratic citizenship.
The moniker, Democracy's Colleges, was recently adopted by America's community colleges on the occasion of a "Call To Action" for these colleges to redouble their efforts at assisting students to complete their degrees, echoing the country's critical need for a 21st century workforce. This dimension of the dualistic democratic challenge—how to provide equal access to higher education and to the equality of opportunity for all of our citizens that is at stake in completing a college education—guided the creation of the land grant system of universities in the middle of the 19th century, as it guided the creation of a national network of community colleges in the middle of the 20th century. However, there is a second, and equally compelling, meaning imbedded in the term Democracy's Colleges, which echoes the 75-year old language of the Truman Report: colleges that pursue "public work…work that taps and engages and develops the civic agency, talents and capacities of everyone…where 'the world's problems' play out in ways that women and men can do something about" (Peters, 2012, para. 6).
This dual democratic challenge—democratizing opportunity, and doing the work of democracy—is being addressed today by community colleges through an initiative known as The Democracy Commitment (TDC). As the founders state in their inaugural Declaration:
American higher education has a long history of service to democracy. Our nation's colleges and universities have always had a mission to make education available to the many and not only the few, to insure that the benefits and obligations of education were a democratic opportunity. This is a proud history, but it is not enough. Beyond access to education itself, colleges and universities have an obligation to educate about democracy, to engage students in both an understanding of civic institutions and the practical experience of acting in the public arena. The American community colleges share this mission of educating about democracy, not least because we are the gateway to higher education for millions who might not otherwise get a postsecondary education. More critically, we are rooted deeply in local communities who badly need the civic leadership and practical democratic capacity of our students for their own political and social health. (The Democracy Commitment, 2011)
Launched in the fall of 2011, The Democracy Commitment seeks to provide a platform for the development and expansion of programs, projects, and curricula aimed at engaging students in civic learning and democratic practice. The goal of TDC is that every student of an American community college shall have had an education in democracy. This includes all of our students, whether their goal is to transfer to university, to achieve an associate degree or obtain a certificate, or simply to take classes to improve their skills. All must be engaged in the work of democracy.
There are problems of democracy (how democracy works) and there are problems in democracy (the policy issues democracy seeks to address). But how do the two prepositions (in and of) relate to each other in democratic work? How are community colleges engaging their students in the work of democracy by focusing on the issues in democracy? After all, these are community colleges—institutions in, of, and for their communities. As TDC's Declaration states: "Community college students come from all walks of life and all social stations; they represent all ethnicities and religious communities; they are all ages. Their ability to exercise their democratic rights and work together in public life, to be generous and tolerant and yet able to advocate for themselves, will help determine the future of these communities" (2011).
The issues our communities face—homelessness and poverty, race and class, unemployment, immigration, public health, and neighborhood development, to name a few—are all grist for the democratic mill. Civic learning and democratic engagement in community colleges have as both their rationale and their focus the problems and issues these communities face. Our students come out of our communities and into our classrooms with these problems, and return to them every day after class. Community college students are more ethnically diverse, more often immigrants, more economically distressed, more part-time or full-time employed, and face more daily challenges in terms of transportation, housing, and language, than any other population in American higher education. In this, they reflect their own communities and embody their policy issues; they are themselves, problems in democracy.
The community colleges that are participating in TDC are now engaged in a rich variety of democratic work, from student-led dialogues on diversity in California and Ohio to civic action and advocacy in Texas and New York; from community organizing in Minnesota to student organizing in California; from deliberative forums in Arizona to developing civic learning modules in Florida; from sustainability efforts in Illinois to voter education in Maryland, with service learning being the most typical civic work underway in most of these colleges. They aim to educate every one of their students for democracy by implementing a broad array of civic practices, rich with the narrative of students democratically engaged in the problems in democracy they themselves represent. They are focusing as well on how democratic their own internal practices are, their policies and procedures, their governance. The work of democracy is everywhere and all around us, policy issues abound, fertile ground for civic learning and democratic engagement.
Partnerships are essential to the work of TDC. TDC colleges come together at an annual meeting to share best practices and learn from colleagues, joining with upper division compatriots from a companion initiative underway for over a decade in state colleges and universities—the American Democracy Project (ADP). The collaboration between TDC and ADP will grow as the partners develop civic pathways for their students, since half of the graduates of state colleges transfer from their local community colleges. The American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) has been essential to launching TDC, offering office space to house TDC's national coordinator. TDC has partnered with the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) to secure a three-year grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in which faculty from ten community colleges are developing curricula in high-enrollment humanities courses to explore diversity and difference as it has played out in the American compact, helping students to learn to think democratically. TDC is also partnering with national organizations, like the League for Innovation in the Community College and the American Association of Community Colleges, as well as national civic organizations, such as Street Law, Kettering Foundation, Public Achievement, CIRCLE, National Issues Forums, Community Learning Partnerships, Sustained Dialogue, and the list keeps growing.
America's community colleges are doing the work of democracy through TDC—seeking to fulfill their dual destiny as democracy's colleges: to provide equal access, to promote equal justice, and to develop civic skills and a sense of democratic practice through engaging our students in the challenging problems in democracy which they embody, and which confront our communities. As we celebrate this year the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s epic Letter from a Birmingham Jail, the words of this "drum major for justice" echo in our classrooms, on our campuses, and in our communities: "Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy!"
Democracy Commitment,The. (2011, November 4). The Democracy Commitment declaration. Retrieved from http://thedemocracycommitment.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Legal_size_Declaration_HR.pdf
Peters, S. (2012, January 10). Land-grant schools are democracy's colleges. Cornell Chronicle. Retrieved from http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/Jan12/PerspectEngage.html
Truman Commission on Higher Education. (1947). Higher education for democracy: A report of the President's Commission on Higher Education, Vol. 1, Establishing the goals. New York: Harper & Brothers.
Portions of this article appeared previously in Connections 2012, the annual newsletter of the Kettering Foundation.
Bernie Ronan, Center for Civic Participation, Maricopa County Community College District
Opinions expressed in Leadership Abstracts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.