Tag Archives: education

Are land-grant universities still “democracy’s colleges?”



Penn State Provost Nick Jones
Penn State Provost Nick Jones

Land-grant universities were once known as “democracy’s colleges,” places where people who were not wealthy elites could earn the education necessary to make better lives for themselves and contribute to the greater social good in the process. The The United States does not have a national university, but the Morrill Land-Grant Acts of 1862 and 1890 established a public university in each state.

Penn State, Pennsylvania’s land-grant university, is the home of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy and this podcast. We invited Nick Jones, the University’s Executive Vice President and Provost, to join us this week for a conversations about the tension between staying true to the land-grant mission and ensuring that the university remains financially stable as funding from the state remains flat or declines.

We also talk about the the skills needed to be good democratic citizens and the skills needed to obtain a high-paying job — and why land-grant universities in particular must pay attention to both.

Recommended Reading

Chronicle of Higher Education article on the role of universities in a democracy 

Land-Grant Universities for the Future

Land-grant universities as “democracy’s colleges”

Why doesn’t the United States have a national university? 

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  1. What do you see as a university’s key responsibilities?
  2. How do you think the role of university has changed over time?
  3. Do you think schools have done a good job making their case as to the importance of higher education?
  4. What do you think is contributing to the trend of many seeing higher education as being less valuable than it once was?
  5. Do you fear that universities will be poisoned by the level of political polarization that we’ve seen take hold of so many institutions over the last few years?
  6. How can universities address the problems pointed to in the last two questions?
  7. If you are either a current student or a college graduate, do you think you’re getting a good return on your investment?

Interview Highlights

Land grant universities have often been referred to as ‘schools for the people’ in the sense that they’re accessible to the pubic. To what extent do you think this label still applies to such institutions?

Nick: I absolutely believe that view of land grant institutions still applies. One of the key tenants of a democracy is an educated and informed citizenry. Our mission here is to ensure that we’re helping to produce that educated citizenry to enable democracy to function.

Penn State manages many things that don’t directly relate to education, such as arenas and medical facilities. How does this tie into its mission as a land grant institution?

Nick: The service duties of institutions like Penn State have changed since their founding as land grant institutions. Today, in 2018, providing medical services is seen as one of these duties of an institution like Penn State. Doing things like managing concert venues goes to another part of our mission which is to expose those in the commonwealth to the arts.

What goes into the process of deciding to increase the offerings of Penn State?

Nick: First and foremost, I think it is critical that we always stay focused on our mission as a university. It truly is the case that all of my decisions are made through the lens of the mission statement of Penn State. Whenever a new project or opportunity is presented to us, we always ask ourselves whether this is vital to our mission as a land grant university. If the answer is yes, we do it. If the answer is no, we don’t.

How do changes in funding from the state impact your decision making process?

Nick: When this process first began of the state reducing their level of financial support, it was ok because tuition costs for families was still relatively low. However, as support has continued to decline, the burden on students and their families has continued to creep up. This increased burden occupies a lot of our time. We spend a lot of time thinking about how to ensure that a valuable Penn State education remains accessible to all types of people across the commonwealth from all walks of life.

Do you see a change amongst the students as to how they view a degree? For example, do they see it as simply a requirement for getting a job or as acquiring a tool to enable them to contribute to the public good?

Nick: We want to ensure that we’re preparing students for life as well as for a career. We are mindful of ensuring that an education from Penn State prepares them for both aspect of the future in a balanced way. We want students to be successful both in their personal career lives as well as in their lives as part of the community.

We’ve seen a trend as of late of devaluing the idea of a liberal education. In part due to a conflation of the idea of a liberal education as being a politically biased education. Do you see this trend as being a problem? How does the university address it?

Nick: We do hear that a lot. We firmly believe that creating students who can address issues analytically is really important. We fundamentally believe in the importance of an educated citizenry.

Do you worry that higher education is going to get caught up in the political  polarization that has crept into nearly every part of our lives?

Nick: We do worry about that a lot. We need to ask why this is happening as well as what we can do to address this. We also have to take ownership of our role in contributing to this problem. We need to again make the case that higher education is important to society and make a significant contribution in a democratic society. One example of a place where I think we have made progress in this regard is in the area of agriculture.

 


Citizenship, patriotism, and democracy in the classroom



Mark Kissling
Mark Kissling

As a piece in The Atlantic recently noted, democracy is not natural. Becoming a democratic citizen involves a set of behaviors that need to be learned and practiced over time. One of the first places for that conditioning to happen is in the classroom. Beyond reading, writing, and STEM skills, students have an opportunity to engage in dialogue and debate facilitated by their teachers and learn what it means to be part of a democracy.

The term most often used to describe this is civics education, which probably brings back memories of learning about the branches of government how a bill becomes a law. As you’ll hear this week, true civics education is about so much more than that. In in a polarized political climate, are teachers afraid to engage controversial subjects? How should they address things like citizenship and patriotism? How do they have time to engage in these wide-ranging discussions given the constraints they face to prepare students for standardized tests? Mark Kissing helps budding teachers find their way — strengthening their commitments to democracy so they can pass that spirit along to their students.

Mark is an assistant professor of social studies education at Penn State. His work focuses on citizenship education, or the practice of preparing civic-minded individuals. We’ve recently seen the importance of civics education play out in the months since the shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Our look at Generation Z and the future of democracy earlier this year is worth revisiting as proof that what Mark and his colleagues are teaching is having an impact.

Recommended Reading

Mark’s post about the National Anthem ritual on the McCourtney Institute blog

Americans Aren’t Practicing Democracy: Yoni Appelbaum in The Atlantic

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • What was your civics education like? Does anything you learned still stick with you today?
  • What role should the formal education system play in creating civically engaged and aware young people?
  • How should teachers and the field of education in general react to concepts such as “fake news” and alternative facts?
  • When a significant current event happens, should teachers and professors take time away from the structured curriculum to address it?
  • Given the access that students have to information outside of the classroom, how should a teacher handle a student who brings in a theory or an idea into the classroom from the internet?
  • What role should parents have in deciding how controversial subjects are addressed in the classroom?
  • People often complain today about the state of political rhetoric. What if anything can be done within K-12 education to help change this for the future generations?

 


Can young people revive civic engagement?



Peter Levine head shot
Peter Levine

Peter Levine is one of the country’s leading scholars in the area of civic engagement. He is the Associate Dean for Research and Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship & Public Affairs in Tufts University’s Jonathan Tisch College of Civic Life and author of “We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: The Promise of Civic Renewal in America.”

The very idea of civic engagement has changed drastically in the past decade or so as communities form online instead of in person. Does this mean young people are more likely to become engaged in civic and political issues? And, will that engagement translate into votes? Peter and his colleagues study these questions and will be watching closely heading into November’s election.

The interview with Peter also touches on what today’s young people can learn from their predecessors 50 years ago. We heard from Tommie Smith about the struggles he faced in 1968; Peter reflects on how civic engagement looks different today and how students today can keep activism alive.

For more information on Peter’s work, visit the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at civicyouth.org or his website at peterlevine.ws.

Interview Highlights

[7:00] What do you think about the activism of Generation Z?

Peter: I am excited about what they’re doing. I would attribute a lot of this to good civil education. I also think its relevant that they’re coming to age in an era of political energy and engagement. While I wouldn’t say this is exactly the dawning of generation z, I would say it is the beginning of a very interesting time in American history.

[8:15] How can people find a common ground to facilitate discussions on difficult topics?

Peter: I wish I had a good answer for this. For example, the gun debate is a good one to have but I’m not sure how much change it can lead to. I think the kids protesting for gun control have the right to do that. However, they shouldn’t be carrying the burden to do so. Also, it isn’t their responsibly to lead a balanced debate on the topic. They are allowed to advocate for their specific stance on the issue.

[11:00] We are in a very important anniversary year of 1968. What can youth activists learn from their predecessors fifty years ago who found themselves in a contentious time?

Peter: The most inspiring stories to me are the high points of the civil rights movement during that time. There is also a lot to be learned from that movement. For example, it’s important to teach students that Rosa Parks wasn’t just some tired old woman who had simply had enough. We should teach kids that in fact she was a long time activist with the NAACP, and that this was a planned political action. This teaches kids how to operate activism today.

[12:20] How do you ensure that proper history is being thought to kids?

Peter: There are several problems with ensuring accurate teaching of this history. One problem is that its presumed that this civil rights movement was led by a relatively small number of individuals. Most of them being men. Also, it is incorrectly described to children as a rather spontaneous movement and development. When it reality, it was a long fight that is still being fought today.

[13:00] Do you thin that social movements today still need the sort of big movement leaders of the 60’s?

Peter: This is difficult to balance. Especially given the fact that we’re in a time of celebrity politics where our president is in the position due mostly to his celebrity status before taking office. On the other hand, we have social movements that are almost allergic to any one figure being the leader. They don’t’ like to structure themselves with strong leaders. Occupy Wall street would be a good example of this disdain for structured leadership within a movement. There is absolutely a less prominent role within these movements than the movements of the 60’s. It feels like a rapidly shifty terrain where we have an increased value of celebrity along side of movements that are focused on not having specific leadership structures.

14:30: Another key question about youth engagement is whether or not they’ll vote. What is your take on this aspect of the issue?

Peter: I do think they’ll boost youth turnout. However, it will be an increase from a terrible point in the last election. This turnout will also make a difference in terms of who will win these races. For example, the different results in the 2006 and 2014 midterm races can be explained by the variation in youth voting. I think the Parkland kids have a potential to impact turnout by a few percent specifically because of their focus on getting out the vote.

[16:10] Why do you think the youth turnout in the 2016 race was the lowest we’ve ever seen?

Peter: It had been pretty bad for a long long time. There are many relevant factors leading to this. Part of the problem is that there isn’t a concerted effort to getting out the youth vote. Many tend to ignore the youth vote. While we see good youth turnout in the presidential races, this dips considerably in mid term races. This is due partly to the fact that smaller local races don’t have the resources to target the youth vote. Also, it is easier for young voters to get to the information they want without having to come in contact with information about their local races. This negatively impacts their interest and therefore their participation in these races. Also, young people are less connected to large institutions that would have informed them of these local races.

[17:45] Do you see anything coming up to replace these traditional institutions that used to get the youth involved in voting?

Peter: I think there is a variety of possible replacements. From social media to apps, there are many places for young people to gather. However, none of them have the infrastructure or business model of the traditional media outlets or churches from the 50’s. It is mostly a question of how to transform these possible replacements into more substantive long term institutions. I don’t think we have that yet. The channels available now weren’t designed specifically to be these new institutions. This is also causing a problem.


Ten thousand democracies



One of the things we talked about in our episode with How Democracies Die author Daniel Ziblatt is the “grinding work” that it takes to make a democracy function. School board meeting rooms around the country are some of the places where that happens at the grassroots level.

Robert Asen
Robert Asen

If you’ve ever been to a school board meeting, you know that they’re not always exciting. However, the work that these boards do directly impacts the schools, the children who attend them, and the community at large. Board positions are not full-time and the people who hold them are rarely career politicians. Rather, they’re everyday citizens who want to make an impact — exactly the type of people come together to make democracy work.

We talk about the role that school boards play in a democracy with Robert Asen, a professor of rhetoric, politics, and culture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Asen is the author of Democracy, Deliberation and Education, which is based on a yearlong study of three school boards in Wisconsin. While the examples he references are specific to Wisconsin, it’s easy to hear the conversations and deliberations playing out at schools across the country.

Asen visited Penn State to deliver the 2018 Kenneth Burke lecture in the McCourtney Institute’s Center for Democratic Deliberation.

Interview Highlights

[6:00] What are the factors that motivate people to join a school board?

Robert: What connects people to these groups are often times their own experiences, including those with their children. There were others who didn’t have children at the school, but saw the school board as an opportunity to get involved with their community.

[7:30] Did you find that people joined the school board because there was a particular change they wanted to see?

Robert: It wasn’t the case for everyone, but there were some who wanted to see particular policy be passed. Across the districts we looked at, there was a more general sense of bringing about change in an effort to improve the schools. They were more focused on improving the lives of students rather than any one particular issue.

[8:40] While these board members are voted on, they are not what we would think of as politicians. How does this play out?

Robert: One of the things that separates these governing boards from other types of elected positions is that these members are not politicians. They don’t have dedicated staff or resources. Many of these members also worked another full time job. This was an additional burden they decided to take on. There are many democratic institutions in our society run by people without formal government education or training. However, they manage to succeed nonetheless. There really is a strong sense of connection to community here. These board members very much see themselves as part of the community working to improve things for citizens.

[11:10] How are these members successful without being career politicians?

Robert: What I mean when I say they succeed is that they are able to make what they believe to be the best decision for the community moving forward. To be successful in this type of setting is to have a sense of what is it that they want to achieve. In this case, they succeed because they’re in communication with education professions and are able to reach their collective goals.

[12:30] Surely there is a good amount of compromise being reached in order to get things done. Can you speak to this in your research?

Robert: There was one example in particular that comes to mind here. One district was considering a proposal from a student group to create a gay student alliance. One board member spoke about his personal experience with this group given that his own son was friends with one of the students trying to create the group. He described him as just your average kid. He described them as normal good kids rather than some political revolutionaries looking to upend the community. He also talked about his own teenage years and how he and his friends might have acted inappropriately around this subject. He spoke about how times are changing and the fact that these kids just wanted a way to meet and be recognized in a group. Here, it was more about practicality winning in the end.

[14:50] What about school boards enables them to tackle difficult issues that other institutions can’t?

Robert: School boards certainly do struggle with deliberation and decision making. However, there are different approaches taken here to solve difficult problems than say within state and federal institutions. The way that polarization manifests at the local level is much different than at the state or national level. We know that communities can sort of segregate themselves naturally along racial and economic lines. This leads to small or medium school districts that may be completely contained within these homogenous areas along what can be rather divisive lines. There is also a unique sense of community. These members feel as though they are a part of the communities that they are impacting with their decisions. This goes a long way towards these bodies reaching important decisions for their institutions.

[19:20] How do school boards work with district administration?

Robert: That is usually the most important and difficult relationship for a school board. When these two work together, a lot can be accomplished. However, when they’re at odds, that can undermine all of the decisions within a district. Everyone has to negotiate their roles. When these relationships begin to break down it is because of a collapse or misunderstanding of each others roles.