By Eli Kramer
The Dewey Society’s Democracy in Education Initiative has worked to not only study civic and community schooling but put it into practice. In November and December of 2018, I was given the opportunity to experiment with democratic pedagogy as a Visiting Tutor at Quest University, in Squamish, British Columbia. Quest is the first innovative liberal arts university of its kind in Canada. Its founding visionary David Helfand was famous for his “sermons” about his vital vision of a robust civic and community university for the twenty-first century.
Like a handful of other campuses (For example, Colorado College), Quest is on a “block model.” Students take one course at time for 3 ½ weeks, 3 hours a day, 5 days a week. The semester is made up of 4 blocks. I taught one introductory or “foundations” course called “Democracy and Justice” in November, and another “cultural foundations” course on utopian higher education experiments, and Quest’s place within that venerable tradition, in December.
At Quest I built upon the Public Achievement international civic education and empowerment initiative founded by Harry Boyte in which young people, faculty, community members, and parents work together on community problems and projects to “build the commonwealth.” This initiative draws on deep democratic traditions of popular government and collective labor to build a shared, common world.
As a Public Achievement project (A “Public Works”) students in my Democracy and Justice Course created a new program at Quest, “Quest Talks.” They decided to launch a discussion/debate club. Their aim was to model for their fellow students challenging, critical, and constructive dialogue on tough issues. During the course they split up into teams and took up everything from the structure of the debate, to food, logistics, and recording the event. For the first event, Tutor Doug Munroe and myself (no one is titled professor at Quest) took the stage as the model communicators, with students from the class running the debate. The theme of debate was “Free Speech and Debate on Our Campuses.”
Although the project fits into a national conversation about debate on campuses, students in the class were primarily interested for more concrete reasons. In Quest’s peculiar case, students did not feel there was polarizing debate on campus, to the contrary students were unsure about how to have hard discussions for fear that it would damage friendships and led to negative judgment by their peers. They felt an opportunity for growth (in the Deweyan communicative sense) was missed. One of the great assets of Public achievement is that it allows students to shape the work to their own local concrete concerns. Most of us want to work on things that matter to us and often those things are concrete and local. As one student from the course Tristan put it:
Most foundationally, people were actually into the project. Many different groups formed throughout it for totally voluntary, extra work, and yet there was no difficulty in staffing them. I joined one or two, and felt good doing it. I felt excited about working on it. Others feeling the same elevated the whole venture; it felt truly rewarding to share my ideas and thinking with others, instead of just mandatory. That sort of dialogue is unusual in group work I find, and to find it here was such a relief.
Centering education in the concrete interests and experience of students is not only Deweyan, but as Tristan went on to note, makes it easier to read and engage with Dewey’s philosophy as alive and real:
Without this to moisten Dewey, for example, I don’t know if I could have read him so steadily. But with the model of work paralleling it, it gave substance to his ideas, and hugely augmented their appeal. It made the whole course feel more real, and more immediate. I felt more active in my learning than at any other time at Quest…
Quest Talks was a success. The chancellor of the university, George Iwama came and gave his compliments. Quest students and tutors commented that they hoped the program will continue. In class, the students made plans and resources to make the program sustainable. A group of students, both inside and outside of the class, are continuing the program and already have planned the next Quest Talk.
In my second course, I decided to experiment and see if I could have students use the method of philosophical genealogy in their public works project for Quest University. Students came up with a variety of small genealogical research projects to be used as feedback and resources as the university undertakes a self-study as part of its institution planning cycle. The organizers of this self-study, “Destination Quest,” are also preparing a history of Quest document in which these student projects may be used.
Projects ranged from interviewing and making public interviews of faculty, administration, and students explaining what see as the value and limits of a Quest degree, to a video trying to capture the subjective experience of Quest, made public to students online via Facebook and other social media. Another group created a series of interviews of faculty, students, and administrators. They asked their interviewees to give their personal story of their relationship with Quest and their own educational philosophies. This included criticism of challenges still facing Quest. They explored getting these videos included as part of the admissions promotional materials. Students thought it would be powerful and unique for Quest to have critical personal narrative as part of their promotional materials. Building out of challenges with their project, one student has longer term plans (the most sustainable/promising public works project) to get a collective student mural on campus (as part of a larger initiative to give student artists more ownership of Quest space).
I also worked on facilitating relational dialogues and networking for future Public Achievement projects at Quest University. I coordinated a meeting between Quest University and Alder College leadership (Dr. Jenn Schuberth and Dr. John Urang), a new innovative two year liberal arts program (toward a Bachelor’s) for traditionally underserved communities in Portland, Oregon. I initiated this dialogue so these innovative institutions could share best practices about mobilizing for change and founding new civic/community driven institutions of higher education. The second goal was for Alder College leadership to get advice from a young institution that shares many of the same values, and has learned much in its first decade of operation, about challenges, “what to do,” and “things they would do differently.” The event has led to important and lasting relationships between the two institutions.
These projects had their share of challenges. After years of cultivating a sense that education is something “that happens to you” instead of “something you do,” it is hard for students to shake off their passive learning expectations, nevermind the challenges of facilitating that transformation as a young teacher. Even in an institution as innovative as Quest, helping students find the resources to feel and engage in ownership of their education is not easy. Further, as these courses were for students newer to Quest, it often proved a challenge to be thrown in the deep end with such autonomy. I have learned from, and worked closely with, Quest faculty to find the tools that can help translate the value of “owning your education,” and cultivate civic empowerment. I’m proud to have worked with them and very grateful for their support and mentorship. I too have a lot to learn about facilitating and engaging in Public Work.
Through these very challenges, there was deep and lasting impact, and the kind of deep learning that Dewey saw at the heart of education. As Sarah, another student in Democracy and Justice put it:
Before coming to Quest, the importance—and reward—of civic involvement and activism never struck me even as something to be concerned with, let alone involved in… I admired the acts of civic involvement I saw, heard, and read about in the news and in my day-to-day life. It all felt like it was tied to something—something important, just beneath my fingertips. And, until the day our Democracy and Justice class brainstormed a final ‘civic’ project, I never felt inspired to get off the sidelines and try to discover it.
For a long time, I believed that having the loudest, strongest, most authoritative voice in the room was the means by which to enact that. And now, after watching the debate, I realize that expressing powerful opinions does not need volume or strength or authority at all. It doesn’t need a Citizenship Club. It doesn’t need unshakeable conviction. No—the only requirement in order to present powerful opinions is a voice.
By having courses where students don’t simply talk about civic life, but practice it, students felt on the concrete level the frustration, messiness, excitement, pride, hope, and empowerment, of democracy as a way of life.
From Ella Baker, to Harry Boyte and George Woods, there are deep waters of experience within this tradition. I have just dipped my toe into deep waters of civic and community schooling. In this tradition I see the potential of an education that enacts our deepest values instead of just talking about them. It is this deep democracy, a true commonwealth, which harnesses the myriad powerful currents of life, that we seek to facilitate channeling and irrigating more broadly in our culture.