I spoke on February 5th at a symposium of the University of Minnesota's Institute of Child Development, held this year on the topic, "The Achievement Gap: Why Executive Function Matters." My charge was to connect the science of what is called "executive function," which Phil Zelazo, a leader in the field, defines as "brain processes involved in...goal-directed modulation of attention, thought, emotion, motivation and action," akin to self-control and self-direction, and civic science, a movement launched with support of the National Science Foundation last October in which Zelazo participated. Civic science seeks to revitalize scientific values and practices such as cooperation, open inquiry, and the test of ideas in practice as wellsprings of a democratic culture.
The timing of the symposium dramatized wider implications. "Executive function" can be a powerful strand of the democracy movement which is stirring - and a resource for countering a growing attack.
The symposium came two days after likely presidential candidate Wisconsin governor Scott Walker proposed a cut of $300 million in the 26 campuses of the University of Wisconsin. Hidden in Walker's budget was a proposal to focus on "meeting the state work force needs" and to delete what is called the Wisconsin Idea, the conviction that the university's mission is "to educate people and improve the human condition" and "to serve and stimulate society."
Walker's substitution - which he described as a "drafting error," though an internal email shows it was intentional - radically shrinks higher education's purpose. As the New York Times editorialized, "It was as if a trade school agenda were substituted for the idea of a university."
But Walker's attack has traction for the same reason extremist forces have been able to attack education across the country. The purpose and cultural logic of education have shrunk, creating vulnerabilities.
Today education is "delivered" to students seen as passive customers. This view has replaced the idea that students are agents and co-creators of their learning, as well as the idea that the purpose of education is not only to prepare students for individual success but most importantly to be contributors to a democratic society. The delivery paradigm produces no ownership. As economist Lawrence Summers, no champion of participatory democracy, nonetheless once usefully quipped, "Nobody washes their rented car."
In contrast, as Stephanie Carlson, another scientist in the symposium, put it, executive function is "about democracy." It brings back the view of children as agents of their learning. Young people learn self-control by having rich opportunities (including old-fashioned play), to practice self-directed, goal-oriented action based on making choices.
A 2011 overview of research by Adele Diamond and Kathleen Lee in the journal Science amplifies. Programs that increase executive function skills, they write, "engage students' passionate interests," "cultivate joy, pride, and self-confidence," and "foster social bonding." These cultural and agency-enhancing dimensions of education are about democracy but rarely described that way these days. Some history can help.
The Institute for Child Development, America's oldest such institute, was founded in 1925 during the period when the movement for democratic science, described in Andrew Jewett's Science, Democracy, and the American University, was in full swing. This was the era when public and land grant universities like Wisconsin were known as "democracy's colleges." The mission deleted from Walker's budget has a revealing descriptor. It involved not only "serving" but "stimulating" society. This meant being "part of" society. Lotus Coffman, then president of the University of Minnesota, described UMN as "social in origin and in nature...represent[ing] the soul hunger and the spiritual expression of the common people" and "the safeguard of democracy."
More insight into the temper of these times and the meaning of "democracy" is gained from the philosophy of Alain Locke, the first African American Rhodes Scholar. The year the ICD was founded, 1925, Locke published The New Negro, the framework of the cultural movement called the Harlem Renaissance. The book passionately challenges the view of African Americans as passive. "The Negro...resents being spoken for as a social ward or minor...the sick man of American Democracy." Locke called for the African American to become "a conscious contributor...a collaborator and participant in American civilization."
Locke also theorized democracy, advancing the view which I learned as a young man in the freedom movement from Martin Luther King and others (King once compared Locke to Plato and Aristotle). "If we are going to have effective democracy in America, we must have the democratic spirit," he told a group of settlement house workers. That requires "more social and more economic democracy in order to have or keep political democracy." He saw democracy's fate as inseparably linked to the freedom struggle, emphasizing "the pivotal place of the minority situation on the present-day battle front of democracy and the crucial need for social and cultural democracy as the bulwark...of democracy."
When "the Wisconsin Idea" resurfaced in Donna Shalala's famous 1989 speech "Mandate for a New Century," Shalala, then chancellor of the University of Wisconsin, challenged the notion of detached, value-free science which, as Jewett described, had come to dominate ("science as utterly deaf to human concerns"). Shalala called for academics' engagement with the world and its problems, from poverty and environmental degradation to racism, sexism and school reform.
But gone was the idea that higher education was part of the society, "stimulating" as well as "serving." Shalala defined the Wisconsin idea as "the idea of a disinterested technocratic elite...the state's best and brightest...in service to its most needy."
After my talk, Megan Gunnar, director of the ICD at Minnesota, responded that the Institute had avoided the lure of "pure science" because it kept its "Lab School" open for children when other child development centers closed theirs. As Zelazo, paraphrasing Gunnar, elaborated in an email, "Kids wandering through the halls served as an important corrective for the mission of ICD when it started to move in the direction of supposedly value-free science."
The science of executive function holds potential to help add another dimension of enormous importance to the identity and practice of science and our view of democracy: individual and collective or civic agency. Scientists are working together with communities and school districts to inform parents and teachers about the importance of executive function skills, how to measure them, and ways to promote their healthy development, while learning themselves from parents and others about unique situations, different cultures, and ways to make change. These are foundational skills of learning, adaptation, and active participation in a democratic society
The emphasis on civic agency science is a contribution never more needed.
Harry Boyte is editor of the new collection, Democracy's Education: Public Work, Citizenship, and the Future of Colleges and Universities (Vanderbilt University Press).