Putting the Public Back in Public Education

David Mathews, president of the Kettering Foundation, once wrote a book with the evocative title, "Is There a Public for Public Schools?"

In my blog conversation with Deborah Meier on Education Week, Meier's question last week, "what defines a public school?" reminds me of the book.

Not only what is a public school but who gets to define it?

This turns out to be intensely political at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, where I gave a talk last week, "Public Universities and the Future of Democracy."

College and universities' connections to larger publics - and their power to shape that destinies, in a time of enormous change - has been greatly weakened. There are a lot of forces at work, such as the detachment of research cultures. But one that is not often discussed is the way colleges and universities define their purposes.

Today college is mainly perceived as a ticket to individual success. This purpose is linked to the way colleges and universities typically separate, even oppose, "liberal arts" and "education for careers."

If we reframe the goal as education for "citizen professionals" it changes the discussion. This means preparing students who understand and engage the real world of today's jobs and are also prepared to be constructive agents of change, helping to create the jobs we need as a society -- more democratic and humane jobs and institutions in schools, businesses, government, health care and elsewhere.

To return public purpose to careers requires integrating liberal learning and skills of democratic action with career preparation: the "heart" and "hand" with "head."

At Illinois questions of educating for jobs are front and center - the university is experiencing huge pressures to cut back on liberal arts and focus instead on job skills. But the focus from the politicians is on "today's jobs," not the jobs we will need as a society. Based on experiences, I'm convinced that if the larger citizenry comes into the conversation it can shift this narrow focus.

In the late 1990s, our Center for Democracy and Citizenship (then at the University of Minnesota) worked with the provost, Bob Bruininks, to create a task force on civic engagement. Its charge was to develop strategies for strengthening the university's public mission, called the "land grant mission." From 2000 to 2002, during the task force work, we had many conversations about how to strengthen the public dimensions of teaching, research and engagement with communities - how to make work "more public," as we put it. The history is described on the University of Minnesota web site.

I was impressed with the depth and seriousness of discussions in Minnesota among many groups, business leaders, small and large, to African American community leaders, school teachers, nonprofit organizations. All sorts of people felt they had a stake in defining the university's public purposes and its future. State legislators described how the university had lost public relationships as it became more like an "Ivory Tower." This loss weakened it politically.

So I took these experiences to the American Commonwealth Partnership, a coalition on the public purposes of higher education which Jon Carson, director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, invited me to organize for the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act in 2012.

One product was two national discussions on the purposes of higher education, Shaping Our Future -- How Can Higher Education Help Us Create the Future We Want? and The Changing World of Work. We worked on both with the Kettering Foundation and the National Issue Forums, and launched them at press conferences at the National Press club with leaders like Martha Kanter, Obama's Undersecretary for Post Secondary Education, David Mathews, Nancy Cantor, Muriel Howard, Scott Peters and others. The first is described in a Youtube video.

There were forums in every region of the country. They surfaced much richer and more multidimensional public sentiments than the narrow ways policy about higher education is now debated, "education for jobs," cutting costs, and the like. Jean Johnson from the Public Agenda group did a great job summing up what we found on the first in a report, Divided We Fail - Are Citizens and Leaders Talking Past Each Other?

The trip to the University of Illinois brought home for me how much the people's voice is needed today in the public debate about policy.

How can we bring the people back in?