Countering the Single Story About Higher Education's Public Purpose

By Scott J. Peters and Timothy K. Eatman, Faculty Co-Directors, Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life

In her moving TED talk on "the danger of the single story," Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie describes how single, one dimensional stories about people, institutions, and places have been and continue to be told and used to dispossess, dehumanize, and malign. One of her examples is the single story that Africa is a continent of tragedy and poverty--and nothing else. Importantly, Adichie also argues that the act of restorying--of telling stories that counter and challenge the false definitiveness of single stories--can empower, humanize, and restore a sense of hope and possibility.

Both the danger of the single story and the restorative power of multi-dimensional counter-stories are deeply relevant to higher education, and to our work as faculty co-directors of Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life. We often hear the single story that higher education's public purpose is to function as a means for economic advancement and development--and nothing else. In this single story, there's no room or place for the arts and humanities, or for educational and scholarly work related to culture and politics. And only work in the "STEM" fields--science, technology, engineering, and math--is recognized and valued.

Another single story about higher education's public purpose that we often hear is the story that the arts and humanities are useless and have no practical value, either for the economy or for the work of public problem solving. Interestingly, this single story isn't just told by cynical outsiders. It's also told by insiders--by professors in the cultural disciplines who view the uselessness of their work as a matter of pride and principle rather than a mark against it. Such professors do not want their work to be "corrupted" by demands and expectations for practical usefulness, especially if "useful" means economically profitable or instrumentally valuable.

There is some truth in both of these single stories about higher education. STEM fields do make important contributions to economic development. And some work in the cultural disciplines is practically and instrumentally useless--in both defendable and not so defendable ways. But these stories are stereotypes. As such, they're inherently incomplete and misleading. They erase exceptions and differences. They reduce multidimensional, "both-and" complexities to one-dimensional "either-ors." In doing so, they obscure important values, realities, and possibilities.

As Chimamanda Adichie teaches us in her TED talk, single stories like these can and must be countered--with other stories. Stories that reveal hidden complexities and possibilities. Stories that empower and humanize, and restore hope and possibility.

We're blessed with an abundance of such stories in Imagining America--stories of creative public work that engages people from arts, design, and humanities fields in important and often transformative leadership roles. Stories that reveal the ways that scholars in these fields are making themselves and their expertise useful--not only or necessarily in work that has economic or instrumental ends, but also in work that embodies and advances cultural ideals and values such as democracy, diversity, and equity. In these stories, we see more than one public purpose for higher education. We see many. And they're often interwoven. (For a compelling example, read about an initiative called Rust to Green that is engaging artists and designers from campus and community in collaborative culture-building and problem solving work in Utica, New York.)

Imagining America creates spaces for people to tell, hear, and learn from multiple stories about the public purposes of higher education. This year we'll be featuring a number of such stories on our Huffington Post blog. By doing so, we'll be enacting a simple organizing principle that's key to Imagining America's newly emerging Theory of Change: find, learn from, and support and strengthen artists and scholars who are doing the work of transforming and democratizing America's civic culture through publicly engaged scholarship in the arts, design, and humanities.

Held this year from October 4-6 in Syracuse, New York, Imagining America's annual national conference will bring together 400 people to share stories about higher education's public purposes and work. Designed as "A Call to Action," our 2013 conference invites and challenges artists and scholars of many kinds to organize and engage in a democratic revival. A revival that's prophetic rather than nostalgic, centered on the urgent work of imagining and creating a future that aligns with the deepest cultural and political ideals of a diverse people. A revival that focuses our energy, time, and resources on positive possibilities pursued through a practical and productive politics, even while it also opens up and sustains a critical discourse about pressing public issues and problems. A revival that exemplifies and builds what Syracuse University Chancellor and President Nancy Cantor refers to as third spaces--open and public free spaces--where the work of democracy takes place.

In pursuit of Imagining America's mission, the 2013 conference will be a space to share stories and cultivate strategies and alliances that reassert and claim not only higher education's but everyone's contributions to the work of building and sustaining a vital democratic culture. Join the conversation virtually on Twitter by following @ImaginingAmer and through hashtag #ImagA13. Visit our website and Facebook page. And stay tuned to this blog in the months ahead for posts by and about publicly engaged artists and scholars who are countering misleading single stories about higher education's public purposes with multidimensional stories of hope and possibility.