Civic Higher Education

By Jessica Weasner

I often take for granted that educating students for active citizenship should be a core element of American higher education. I have spent my entire professional career as a student affairs practitioner working in the field of community service and civic engagement.  My day to day work has focused on increasing students’ awareness of social issues, encouraging involvement in their communities, and developing the necessary civic skills to mobilize for social change. I gravitated towards this work because of my own personal experiences as a college student. Thus, for me, college has always felt like the natural place to prepare students for citizenship.

Indeed, one of the foundational goals of the American higher education system was to prepare our citizens with the knowledge and skills necessary to sustain our democracy. Yet, research tells us that few American students today consider the attainment of a civic education or building of civic skills as a goal of their educational experience (Hatcher, 2011). While more and more institutions of higher education are including goals related to citizenship development in the mission or vision statements, a much higher value is often placed on the future employment and financial success of our students. Rather than viewing the entirety of the educational experience as an opportunity to prepare students for civic life, we relegate it to a single office on campus. Community service and civic engagement practitioners often feel (rightly so) that our work is undervalued by our institutions. Resources are limited and schedules are jam packed. It can be overwhelming and discouraging. Sharing our stories can seem like a luxury we don’t have time for. I know that it wasn’t on my priority list.

The relational conversations I have taken part in as part of my work with the JDS Democracy in Education Initiative have been encouraging; demonstrating that there are passionate and dedicated individuals and organizations across the country working to revitalize our civic mission. Our shared stories of why we chose to engage in this work professionally remind me that for many of us, this work is deeply personal. They are also a reminder that we are all part of a movement dedicated to preparing students for citizenship and our network provides a multitude of resources and opportunities to support us in this challenging work.

One such resource is Campus Compact, the first national organization dedicated to educating students for citizenship by providing resources and support for institutions of higher education (Hollander & Hartley, 2009). Campus Compact was born out of the renewed interest in the public purpose of higher education in the 1980s. During this time, many campuses saw the institutionalization of civic engagement and service learning. Recently, they took note of the new and increasingly challenges facing our democracy such as civic apathy and greater political polarization. On its 30th Anniversary, Campus Compact called for the Presidents and Chancellors of its member campuses to publicly recommit themselves to the advancement of democracy via an action statement. The statement called for campuses to “redouble our efforts with a renewed commitment to preparing students for democratic citizenship, building partnerships for change, and reinvigorating higher education for the public good” (Campus Compact, 2016).  Over 450 institutions signed the document, this time explicitly committing themselves to developing a written Civic Action Plan for their campuses. The planning process has provided an opportunity for many campuses to engage in conversations about civic education and how they can create a culture where it is integrated throughout the institution. Campus Compact has made these plans available on their website. Additionally, Campus Compact has created Knowledge Hubs, where member campuses can share their stories, including best practices and key resources. These plans and knowledge hubs are a great opportunity to learn more about what institutions of higher education are doing to advance this work. It is inspiring to see the work taking place across the country.


Hatcher, J. A. (2011). Assessing civic knowledge and engagement. New Directions for Institutional Research, 2011(149), 81-92.

Hollander, E., & Hartley, M. (2009). Introductory essay: Reimagining the civic imperative of higher education. A different kind of politics: Readings on the role of higher education in democracy, 1-14.

Campus Compact. (2016). Campus Compact thirtieth anniversary action statement of presidents and chancellors. Retrieved from



Written Opinion in Public Life


By Dustin Hornbeck

It is difficult to underestimate the importance of written opinion as an expression of agency and civic participation within a democratic society. Editorial writing has been central to the development of Western  political life; Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” Jefferson may have changed his mind about this later in his political life when editorials accused him of all kinds of mischief and moral corruption. Nevertheless, editorials like, The Federalist, have sparked public debates and dialogue that has greatly contributed to public deliberation.  This blog offers some broad suggestions for blog and editorial writing for intellectuals and academics who want to “go public.” It is a primer for a workshop to be held at the upcoming annual meeting of the John Dewey Society.

Historically, the public distribution of written word has driven democratization and shared knowledge with citizens. Self-rule is contingent upon an educated and motivated citizenry. The modern concept of representative democracy as well as the larger Deweyan conception of democracy as society, as “way of life” as well as elections, hinges on the ability of citizens to have access to information and to develop the skills to integrate it. this has historically come from the circulation of newspapers, pamphlets, public speeches, and meetings. Public writing also has a broader purpose. In The Public and its Problems, John Dewey warns against over-reliance on the traditional governmental rituals found in classical liberalism, and calls for experimentation and open dialogue and collaboration with  “citizen  experts,” drawing on their experience and local knowledge, to further democratize society. Cultivating  a diversity of perspectives and kinds of expertise in a variety of written formats is part of Dewey’s vision of  a robustly democratic society beyond the narrow confines of representative government

Printed editorials have long been the norm, but blogs and other electronic outlets have become a new prominent medium for conveying written opinion in the last two decades.  Submitting editorials to blogs and online newspaper outlets can be an important way to promote discourse and generate deliberation about topics in education. Last year, Amy Shuffelton, a professor at Loyola University in Chicago, wrote a compelling piece probing into the intent of a three-hour series aired by PBS that promoted school choice. Her piece was subsequently shared by education reform giant, Dianne Ravitch, which opened a dialogue about something that may have gone unnoticed by many who had encountered the program.

Included below are a few thoughts about writing an op-ed or blog post. When deciding to write an opinion editorial, it is important to consider the potential publishing outlet, and to harness personal experience and expertise to have a unique take on the issue.

Choosing an Outlet and Audience

First and foremost, it is important to know what you want to say in your piece; this will help you determine where to submit your work. There are numerous online websites that run the gambit on topics, with some very specific and some incredibly broad. One example of a narrowly focused blog from Philadelphia is called, The Notebook, this blog is dedicated to news and ideas specific to the Philadelphia city school district. People use this independently-run blog to share opinions and ideas specific to issues faced by the public schools in Philadelphia. Local newspapers are also great outlets for opinion writing and reach a varied online and sometimes print audience. The Conversation, is an up-and-coming news outlet that is written primarily by academics as a way to display research in a public outlet. The op-ed project is a great place to sift through various opinion outlets and find instructions on how to submit to each site listed.

Be Original

Once you determine where you want to submit your editorial, the next step is to set yourself apart from other opinion submissions. It is incredibly difficult to get a piece accepted to some large national blogs and newspapers, but not impossible. According to a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal, your chances of getting published in a major national outlet increase if you are already famous in your field, your editorial is about a popular topic, and if your piece adds a unique spin on the issue about which you focus. Many prominent websites, news magazines, blogs, and newspapers have regular opinion writers, and it with subscription services on the decline, space in papers is diminishing, but online blogs are prevalent and can be great places to circulate opinion about critical issues of the day. Starting small is a great idea, and publishing in a local outlet about a local issue is an important way to contribute to democratic debate.

State your Position

When writing academic papers, we are often trained to avoid sharing our own positions and opinions. In some disciplines, positionality is frowned upon, and writing in third person is the only legitimate way in which to write. Inversely, editorials take a strong position and can be written in the first person.  In an article offering tips for aspiring op-ed authors,  The New York Times suggests that all opinion submissions be written for a general audience, and should include the writer’s’ opinion and perspective. Writing in relative simple and understandable language is a way to reach a large audience and can help add to the important field of public scholarship. As well, keeping sentences short and to the point is keeps readers engaged in the argument.  Referencing your personal expertise and experience signals your credibility and is a powerful tool of persuasion.

                              Photo by Austin Chan

There is no correct way to write an op-ed, and it’s hard to say what might strike a chord with an opinion editor. It might be frightening to think about writing your opinion, but it’s nothing more than a written conversation; Fear not! Take a deep breath, collect your thoughts, and just write. Your opinion will likely resonate with others and help spark deliberation, perhaps sparking an idea that can further bring us closer to a just society. Give it a try!


Experiments in Public Achievement Pedagogy

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.


Mapping the Movement: A Relational Discussion with George Woods on Civic and Community Schooling


What would a Copernican revolution look like, for educators interested in a healthy democracy and civic life?  In the last post here, Harry Boyte imagined up-ending the way we see politics in the United States, putting citizens back in the center rather than technocrats, experts, or career politicians. Such a revolution would reject the “us versus them” partisanship with more public work approaches involving citizens.

Part of our project in the Dewey Society Democracy in Education initiative is to help spread this vision by mapping the network of educators who are already busy doing this work. Networks help build and grow movements, but often, those working on projects related to democracy in education are busy in their own circles and localities. They are too busy on the day-to-day to spare time to reach out to others who are doing similar work, or to share their work with others.

To map this network, we are conducting relational conversations with democratic education practitioners across the U.S.. We are gathering the stories of this movement — to spark its further growth and to extend its relationships and reach.

These practitioners are educators, working at all levels in both K-16 schools, youth organizations, or organizing groups, to enact visions that put democratic engagement and health at the center of their work with or for children, youth, or young adults. These conversations are loosely based in Marshall Ganz’s organizing approach called public narrative.  Simply put, this approach tries to have people reflect on their own  stories of public work and put them in conversation with others they work with and the challenges of the time.   As Ganz states, “Because stories allow us to express our values not as abstract principles, but as lived experience, they have the power to move others.”

Recently I talked with George H. Wood, the superintendent at Federal Hocking Local School district in Stewart, Ohio.  I read George’s Schools that Work: America’s most innovative public education programs when I was first learning about democratic education in graduate school in the early 1990s. George inspired me then, and he inspired me last week when I talked with him about his work at Federal Hocking.

Federal Hocking is a small, rural school district in southeastern Ohio, and George is in his twenty-fifth year there. He spent 18 years leading the high school, and since then has served as superintendent.  Federal Hocking is in Athens County, where a rich agricultural and Appalachian heritage shapes the values and rhythms of life. The median income in 2016 was $34,221, so the challenges of poverty are very real for Federal Hocking educators. Still, in 2017, U.S. News and World Report gave the high school there a Bronze Medal recognition. While I’m no fan of that ranking system, and while George did not once mention this national recognition of the school during our conversation (it came up in my research only afterwards), this fact is important.  

Two themes came out of my conversation with George Wood. The first is the importance of place in the work of education for democracy.  The second is the state of democratic education networks in the age of high-stakes public school accountability.  

It’s so, so rare now for educational leaders to make an entire career in the same district.  While statistic vary, a variety of researchers have studied the problem of principal retention recently, and find that the length of service of a principal is getting shorter and shorter; 3-5 years is an average length of service quoted frequently in the literature.  For superintendents, the average length of service in urban districts is just about three years, when measured in 2010. Leaders in suburban and rural districts have longer tenures, but for most educational leaders, the way to climb the ladder is to move around, taking on new jobs in new districts to gain more responsibility.  

This job hopping is not a trend that promotes school leaders who can bring a clear sense of democratic and civic purpose to their work. Here’s why:  democracy can be a very local affair, and democratic education starts with trust and relationships, both in the school, and across the community.  George talked about being an anomaly as a school leader in this way; of other school leaders who move from place to place he wondered, “what are they chasing?”  He discussed the importance of respecting the place in which you’re working, and being trusted by people who live there. Having democratic values at the core of your leadership, as a school leader, means that you must be inclusive in solving problems and open to the diverse families and perspectives in the school or district.  Look at the Federal Hocking website and you will see meetings called “Conversations” which are different types of problem-solving sessions.  

One of the problems George talked about wrestling with is school start times. At the Federal Hocking High School, a very early start-time has been the source of student and parent complaint for a long time; school districts which are geographically large and resource-tight often have to stretch their bus routes, which can result in early school start-times for teenagers. More and more research is showing the adverse health effects of teenagers’ lack of adequate sleep, and more and more families are complaining about the early times. My own school district in a different part of Ohio has this same problem, and has yet to come to a satisfactory solution.

George has convened a series of Community Conversations around this issue. He has sought diverse student and parent input, and when necessary, will send buses to bring parents to community meetings to areas in his district where transportation is a difficult issue. He says he thinks they are close to a solution on this issue. The ability to convene productive dialogue around a sticky problem in a district like this comes over time, and from the trust of families in district leadership.

The second insight from my conversation with George Wood relates to the health of professional networks related to democratic school leadership. Because the work of centering civic and democratic aims in education is an uphill battle in most public school bureaucracies, leaders like George have leaned heavily into networks that inform, support, and coach him when needed.  For many years, groups like the Coalition for Essential Schools, under the guidance of late Ted Sizer, was George’s primary network. For others, that network was the National Network for Educational Renewal, under the leadership of the late John Goodlad. At gatherings of many progressive school associations, most of the representation is from the independent school sector. A handful of vital networks helped K-12 school leaders find direction and support; where are the new organizations now providing this kind of professional learning for school leaders?  Where are the networks of principals and leaders who are working aggressively to put the community and the civic aims of schooling at the heart of the enterprise, and go against the grain of the accountability pressures?  As more and more parents and teachers speak out about the negative consequences of high-stakes testing, the time to (re)build such networks or grow new ones seems to be upon us.

One of the aims of our Democracy in Education Initiative through the John Dewey Society is to network leaders and organizations in civic and community schooling. We are doing this through relational interviews, telling the stories of leaders who have paved the way, through a respect for the unique features of each place, the unique voices of constituencies in that place, and with the help of others in a network of learning and inquiry.  

George Wood’s story is one of many that can provide us with wisdom and insights for inspiring others. The insights of place-based leadership, and of healthy professional networks are only two I could convey here.  To learn more from George, you’re going to have to travel the beautiful country roads of Athens County, Ohio, to find Federal Hocking Local School district, and catch him in a rare free moment to talk to him yourself.


A Copernican Revolution in Politics

By Harry Boyte (Senior Scholar in Public Work Philosophy at the Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg University)

Eli Kramer is by no means alone in the tendency toward hopelessness he expressed in the first blog: “I wake up most mornings with dread.” Today people of every group feel hopeless about redressing our mounting problems and reversing civic unravelling, and many, from diverse backgrounds, also feel devalued and victimized.

Politicians and parties are not going to solve this problem. We need a Copernican Revolution that relocates politics among the people while developing people’s capacities for citizenship and action across differences. Such citizen politics, centered on citizens’ needs, values, aspirations, and capacities, holds potential to transform the logic that gives primacy to efficient technological systems. Copernicus, it is worth recalling, was a Polish mathematician and astronomer whose 16th century model of the cosmos, shifting from the notion that the heavens revolved around the earth to the idea that the earth revolved around the sun, revolutionized humans’ sense of their place in the universe.

Human devaluation in a technocratic age

Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’  brilliantly names the problem of technocracy. He combines embrace of climate science with a trenchant critique of technocracy that articulates the limits of scientific and technological modes of thought. “The basic problem goes even deeper” than concentrated economic power, he argues. “It is the way that humanity has taken up . . . an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm [that] exalts the concept of a subject, who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object.” He calls this the technocratic paradigm, in which authority for knowledge- creation, decision-making and problem-solving are ceded to a class of scientifically credentialed experts, outside a common civic life.

The technocratic paradigm is visible across the sweep of modern society including elections and citizen action, which it reshapes in Manichean terms.  Formal politics is powered by the Manichean formula in which experts identify an enemy and define an issue in reductionist, good-versus-evil terms. It is efficient because hatred and anger are relatively uncomplicated emotions to manipulate cheaply and rapidly. For years I defended the canvass but when I began teaching at the Humphrey Institute in 1987, I discovered most of my students had canvassed and were cynical and disillusioned about politics. I also became aware of a larger problem: the Manichean formula objectifies “the enemy,” radically erodes common citizenship, and communicates that politics is warfare.

The formula has spread across the spectrum, and is dramatically accelerated by the digital revolution. Donald Trump’s tweets find parallel on the left in a handbook and website called “Heroes Narrative,” used by progressive groups around the country, which describes how to frame any issue as a struggle of heroes against villains.

Citizen politics of public work

Citizen-centered politics and public work constitute an alternative. Citizen politics is not state-centered, nor is it ideological.  It draws on conservative and progressive values. It needs to be infused with nonviolence, woven into the fabric of everyday life, and understood as “public love” even for one’s enemies. Public love recognizes people’s aspiration, as Martin Luther King put it, “for belonging to the best in the human family.” Public love teaches a possibility respect for the potential of others including enemies, for co-creative work that builds the common world.

In her book, Newer Ideals of Peace, Jane Addams argued for “forming new centers of spiritual energy” where people could overcome ideological, cultural and other hatreds, learn from each other and work together – teaching citizen politics. This was her goal for Hull House, John Dewey’s model for schools as civic centers.

Citizen politics is expressed through the concept of public work. One example, taken from the forthcoming book on public work, Pedagogy of the Empowered, is transforming special education teacher programs through a civic education initiative called Public Achievement.

In Public Achievement, teams of young people work on issues of their choice in real settings. Projects are undertaken in nonviolent ways and make a public contribution. Teams are coached by adults, often college students, who help them develop achievable goals, learn to navigate local environments, develop political skills, and treat others with respect. Projects range widely, from campaigns against bullying and racism to building playgrounds, championing healthy life styles, and making curriculum changes.

The Special Education pre-service teacher program at Augsburg adopted Public Achievement as an answer to the critique of special education as a technocratic approach to “fix” special needs children. Dissenting from the medical or technocratic model, faculty at Augsburg wanted a more empowering learning environment for both students and pre-service teachers. Their results can be seen here.

Over three years the results were dramatic. “Problem students,” mostly low-income and minority, became “problem solvers” on issues like school bullying, health lifestyles, animal cruelty, and supporting terminally ill children. They got recognition in the school, in the larger community, and across the state. The process also transformed the teachers, Michael Ricci and Alissa Blood into “citizen teachers.”

All preservice special education teachers at Augsburg now coach in Public Achievement as part of their preparation. Interviews show striking increase in their understanding of students’ intelligence and talents and a much wider pedagogical repertory that gives students far more room for co-creative activity.

Such public work points toward what I call “civic science” in which scientifically trained professionals see themselves as citizens, and science as civic. It intimates a democratic awakening.


A Call to Reflective Action

A Poster from Hull House, which John Dewey saw as an exemplary school as Social Center


By Eli Kramer

I (like many) wake up most mornings with dread at the edges of my consciousness. Something feels horribly wrong. From ecological crises, to cultural violence and polarization, there is a strong feeling that the unravelling of the civic fabric is inevitable. I feel oppressed by impersonal forces and institutions that seem to be the source of this dread, and which I have little to no control over. Despite these storm clouds on the horizon, the experiences of everyday life often pulls me away from both despair and action. What to do? How do we help ourselves, our communities, our cultures, and our shared world revitalize hope and a sense of agency, between despair and the drudgery of the everyday?

The younger generation is particularly susceptible to this disempowering gloom. According to a recent “Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE)” study,  a majority of rural youth, and a third of urban and suburban youth feel their communities are “civic deserts,” or places devoid of the resources to change self and society (Kawashima-Ginsberg and Sullivan). Even when growing up in a upper middle class, socially rich, urban community, and in a high school with I.B. offerings, and a host of extra curriculars, I too felt few starved of resources for shaping self and society.

I was soon to be fed. In search of a center of empowerment, I went to pursue my undergraduate degree at the Johnston Center for Integrative Studies of the University of Redlands . At Johnston, for the first time I felt that my peculiar gifts as a person were truly appreciated and nurtured to make a difference in my communities. Further, I had inspiring models of how education can catalyze the growth of the whole person. Education at Johnston was about mutual support in creating integrated and active stories of who we were, who we had become, and where we wanted to go in our lives. At Johnston, I was nurtured to negotiate my own dynamic way in the world.

Johnston taught me how civic and community schooling can make all the difference in alleviating our thirst for agency. Building on the lessons from Johnston, I soon found myself steeped in the life and work of the philosopher and public intellectual John Dewey. Dewey spent his career showing how education embedded in the life of communities is the center of a fertile civic life. He saw schools as the centers of civic power to address our most incapacitating problems. He also argued that schools should not be factories for adulthood, but should be centers of communities most vital resources, youth, parents, teachers, and concerned citizens, who work together, and learn how to address their most pressing problems: “…we may say that the conception of the school as a social centre is born of our entire democratic movement. This is no longer viewed as a matter of charity, but as a matter of justice—nay, even of something higher and better than justice—a necessary phase of developing and growing life (Dewey, 92-93).” Dewey articulated what I had longed for in high school, and that was first nurtured at Johnston, a vision of schooling as the catalyzing civic center of community life.

Realizing the power of civic and community schooling was just the first step. The true task has been learning how to support the creation and advancement of such schooling. I wanted my new reflective insights to be meaningful and of service. I had not realized then, but the society that takes Dewey’s name was up to just such work. From its founding at the height of the American Great Depression, The John Dewey Society has defended and advanced civic and community schooling.

Their progressive work further refined my fundamental convictions about the power of schools as catalyzing agents of society. Since the Cold War days of anti-Communist hysteria, “progressive” is one of those terms thrown around mostly to disparage political persuasions deemed “leftist” or as a particular vision of the Democratic party supporting a more robust agenda of social reform and improvement. For the founding members of John Dewey Society, “progressive” meant something more than the narrow ideological pejorative we are left with today. To be “progressive,” was to be working toward a better world, beyond one’s own narrow visions and dogmas. They wanted future generations to move beyond their own narrow conceptions, to something broader, more intelligent, and more robustly public. In short, “progressive” meant preparing citizen students to disagree with you, and who will sometimes move beyond your most cherished values.  It was a faith not in some reductive fantasy of the natural progress of humans, but a hope in the ability of persons to intelligently work together to improve their situation.

From its early days, the John Dewey Society was a leading voice in current affairs and politics, in particular through the publication of the JDS Yearbook, and through essays in other leading progressive journals such as the Social Frontier. This public work helped cultivate a powerful community of public intellectuals to defend and advance a broad vision of civic and community schooling. For example, The society defended academic freedom and a robust vision of education during the height of Mccarthyism. Then JDS president William Kirkpatrick, through his connections to the press, helped catalyze a series of articles the led the charge of defending progressive education and academic freedom against the anti-intellectual attacks of Mccarthyites (Tanner, 27-30).

Since I began graduate school, the Society has catalyzed my own empowerment for civic public work. I enthusiastically participated in their annual meetings and joined projects that could advance civic and community schooling. Over the last few years, we have been having big picture discussions about the future work of the society. We decided to not only think big, but put those big ideas into practice. This year, the society has generously funded me as a co-director the Democracy in Education Initiative. We aim to revitalize big picture projects in JDS, and catalyze, incubate, and network the civic and community school movement.  Our organizing team comes from a variety of backgrounds. We have a Deweyan commitment to civic and community schooling, while reconstructing his philosophy, and moving beyond it, toward this end.

Over the next few months, we will highlight important stories in civic and community schooling and document our own work in this movement. Our hope here is to map the building collective agency for change at this critical juncture in our shared democratic life. The time is now for reflective action.

I wake up in the morning fearing the worst. Then take a deep breath; the sun is still shining and there is exciting work to be done. I have my own “civic and community schooling” to attend with my fellow citizens and DiE organizers. We are a part of a movement just on the horizon. A movement that places its hope in our ability to work together to change our situation for the better. It is a movement that centers this work wherever we collect, connect, and catalyze our shared gifts as citizens and persons.


Dewey, John, “The School as Social Center,” in The Collected Works of John  Dewey: The Middle Works of John Dewey: 1899-1924: Journal Articles, Book Reviews, and Miscellany in the 1902-1903 Period, and Studies in Logical  Theory and The Child and the Curriculum. Volume 2. Edited by Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1976.

Kawashima-Ginsberg, Kei and Felicia Sullivan. “Study: 60 Percent of Rural Millennials Lack Access to a Political Life.” The Conversation, March 27, 2017.

Tanner, Daniel, Crusade for Democracy: Progressive Education at the Crossroads.SUNY-Philosophy of Education. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1991.