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Seizing the Chance to Teach Change

The newest challenge to educating for civic responsibility
University Business, June 2012

If young people hope to influence the direction of political and social change, they need to adopt a better strategy. The amorphous protests embodied in the recent Occupy movement and the ambivalent responses by most colleges to them were disappointing. The intermittent camp-ins and other protests failed to attract widespread support, and—as college leaders no doubt predicted—dissipated fairly quickly. As an unintended strategy in cooptation, ambivalence by college leaders was reasonably effective, but the responsibility to prepare students for greater civic responsibility remains with colleges to restore students’ belief in the use of durable institutions to work for the common good.

A stance of either benign neglect or lukewarm support was short-sighted. The Occupy movement revealed widespread lack of confidence among young people in American political, social, and financial institutions and—even more worrisome—the inability of the protestors to use existing institutions to work for change.

A major opportunity for colleges to seize a “teachable moment” was lost. The absence of confidence in institutions led to a protest movement without well-articulated goals of its own. Even today, the followers of the Occupy movement lack cohesive proposals for change. Instead, many protesters still only decry the problems.

Campus leaders could have characterized this phenomenon as the dumbing down of the more strategic protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s, but they did not. Instead, a few argued that when massive numbers of people protest peacefully it is a use of a Gandhi-esque tactic. Gandhi had clear goals, however, while many Occupy protesters are content to wait for someone else to translate their frustration and dissatisfaction into a remedy.

Why didn’t more campus authorities criticize the Occupy protesters for lack of a clear purpose? Today’s campus leaders include many former social activists of the 1970s who, as younger protesters, had been counseled by their elders to channel grievances into “the system” and to pressure the system to fix what was wrong. Many did and saw the system produce results. With this experience, the boomers today—even those who may now be wavering in their own faith in American social and political institutions—might have expressed indignation over the protesters’ naïveté and given them tactical advice, lessons from history or schooling in political theory.

If today’s campus officials can be faulted for being overly forgiving of students’ missteps in their protest activities, the reactions to the Occupy movement by leaders in other sectors have also been surprisingly bland.

Why didn’t more campus authorities criticize the Occupy protesters for lack of a clear purpose?

The Wall Street Journal, for example, usually pro-business and conservative in its perspective, bent over backwards to emphasize the thread of a positive strategy for change in the Occupy movement. In attempting to impute a more sophisticated strategy to the movement than it may actually have, the Journal’s view was that, in the case of the Occupy Oakland site, there were two groups of protesters—the main group whose agenda was incoherent but peaceful and a smaller group of well organized “anarchists” who relied on disruption and selective use of violence as a deliberate tactic to radicalize people and to demonstrate the ineffectual responses that stodgy institutions inevitably exhibit.

Shouldn’t colleges seize this opportunity to teach the deeper lessons of this demonstration of theories of social change in action? The “anarchists” in Oakland are not the inheritors of the traditions of such theorists of the Russian Revolution as Peter Kropotkin and Mikhail Bakunin. And the frequent comparisons of the Occupy movement with the Tea Party, which also has a strategy of not compromising, ignores real differences between two fringe movements. Because only one of them has a strong following among young people, its character as neither a manifestation of classic anarchism nor an extension of the strategy of Gandhi ought to be a concern of educators.

Advancing the Common Good

Some colleges are helping to restore faith in the capacity of American political institutions to advance the common good. The American Commonwealth Partnership at Augsburg College (Minn.) and the American Democracy Project of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities both include national and regional meetings, curriculum revision, and programs that encourage greater attention to civic involvement on university and college campuses.

Allegheny College (Pa.) recently announced a Prize for Civility in Public Life, awarded to journalists Mark Shields and David Brooks, to honor individuals on opposing sides of the ideological spectrum who show noteworthy civility while arguing passionately for their views. The recent report from the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, “A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future,” inventories a dizzying array of campus-based activities that encourage students to work toward improvement of their communities and, ultimately, the entire nation through college graduates’ deeper involvement in civic institutions.

Colleges and universities can do still more. Initiatives such as Project Pericles (a nonprofit coalition of colleges that promotes social responsibility and civic participation on campus) target what are often the weakest links in campus efforts to encourage civic engagement by students. The project insists, first, that college trustees embrace greater involvement in civic institutions as an explicit value of the college and, second, that the college’s program of civic engagement include formal coursework in many disciplines.

As the college-going population adds more first-generation, minority, and low-income students, these steps enable independent colleges, with their especially high rates of success for these at-risk students, to demonstrate their natural roles as laboratories for democracy and as engines of social mobility.

The challenge is to motivate college students and faculty members to go beyond the laudable community service projects to which most have committed and engage the political system itself. Today, unfortunately, grass-roots, community-based organizations can rarely count on attracting a large percentage of a community’s population. And the leaders of these local initiatives are themselves often wary of larger alliances because local activists, like Occupy protesters, lack confidence that national governmental, NGO, or financial institutions can be truly responsive to the people.

A hopeful sign is the efforts by the Kettering Foundation, which has devoted many years to studying this malaise and what works to revitalize civic engagement. Kettering promotes National Issues Forums for community groups to discuss major policy issues in civil and constructive ways that raise the likelihood of consensus ultimately emerging.

Colleges should be in the forefront of efforts like these. As a first step, colleges must show students that well-conceived strategies work better than incoherent protests to influence political and social change. As a second step, colleges need to deepen students’ understanding of political institutions that have a distinctive American history. And as a third step, colleges should engage the broader population to help make a real difference in revitalizing democratic participation. We must restore students’—and eventually the broader public’s—belief in the use of durable institutions to work for the common good.

Richard Ekman is president of the Council of Independent Colleges.