University-Community Partnerships for the Public Good: A Democratic Imperative

This week in North Philly Notes, Ira Harkavy, John Puckett, Matthew Hartley, Rita A. Hodges, Francis E. Johnston, and Joann Weeks, the co-authors of Knowledge for Social Changediscuss the importance and mutual benefits of local partnerships involving the university and the community. 

Martin Luther King used the phrase “fierce urgency of now” and called for immediate “vigorous and positive action” to end segregation and the unequal treatment of African-Americans. Given the severe dysfunction of the American political system—as well as many political systems throughout the world—vigorous and positive action is also required  at this time. In particular, universities have an increased and increasing responsibility to contribute to the advancement of knowledge and improvement of the human condition.

Colleges and universities, as former Harvard University President Derek Bok and others have emphasized, have become the central societal institutions in the modern world. The path to power and success for the vast majority of leaders in science, health care, business, law—indeed, in nearly every area of American life—passes through colleges and universities. They have become the primary engines of growth for an increasingly knowledge-based global economy. Colleges and universities have also come to play a key role in their local environments as anchor institutions. They possess enormous resources (especially human resources), develop and transmit new knowledge, educate for careers and advancement, function as centers of artistic and cultural creativity, and have a powerful influence on the norms, values, and practices of the pre-K–12 schooling system. They are catalysts and hubs for local and regional economies as employers, real estate developers, clients for area vendors, and incubators for business and technology.

In the past several decades, enlightened self-interest has prompted many colleges and universities to respond to external pressures from government, foundations, and public opinion by partnering in local community economic development efforts to help solve pressing problems including poverty, crime, violence, and physical deterioration. These partnerships also manifest a renewed commitment to the historic civic and democratic purposes of higher education.

Knowledge for Social Change_smIn Knowledge for Social Change, we focus on significant contributions to learning made by Francis Bacon, Benjamin Franklin, Seth Low, Jane Addams, William Rainey Harper, and John Dewey—as well as our own work at Penn’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships—to help create and sustain democratically engaged colleges and universities for the public good. We particularly highlight our model of university-assisted community schools to effect a thoroughgoing change of research universities that will contribute to more-democratic schools, communities, and societies.

We argue, however, that universities, including our own, have not fulfilled their promise.

What strategic step might help engage Penn, as well as other universities, to embrace that democratic vision actively as well as rhetorically? In one of his most important propositions, John Dewey stated, “Democracy must begin at home, and its home is the neighborly community.” Democracy, he emphasized, has to be built on face-to-face interactions in which human beings work together cooperatively to solve the ongoing problems of life. We are updating Dewey and advocating the following proposition: Democracy must begin at home, and its home is the engaged neighborly college or university and its local community partners. Neighborliness, we contend, is the primary indicator that an institution is working for the public good.

The benefits of a local community focus for college and university civic engagement programs are manifold. Ongoing, continuous interaction is facilitated through work in an easily accessible location. Relationships of trust, so essential for effective partnerships and effective learning, are also built through day-to-day work on problems and issues of mutual concern. In addition, the local community provides a convenient setting in which service learning courses, community-based research courses, and related courses in different disciplines can work together on a complex problem to produce substantive results. Work in a university’s local community, since it facilitates interaction across schools and disciplines, can also create interdisciplinary learning opportunities. Finally, the local community is a real-world learning site in which community members and academics can pragmatically determine whether the work is making a real difference and whether both the neighborhood and the institution are better as a result of common efforts.

For Dewey, knowledge and learning are most effectively advanced when human beings work collaboratively to solve specific, significant real-world problems in “a forked road situation, a situation that is ambiguous, that presents a dilemma, which poses alternatives.” Focusing on universal problems—for example, poverty, poor schooling, and inadequate healthcare—that are manifested locally is, in our judgment, the best way to apply Dewey’s brilliant proposition. A focus on local engagement is an extraordinarily promising strategy for realizing institutional mission and purpose.

“Only connect!” The powerful, evocative epigraph to E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End captures the essence of our argument—namely, that the necessary revolutionary transformation of research universities is most likely to occur in the crucible of significant, serious, sustained engagement with local public schools and their communities.

Knowledge for Social Change concludes by calling on democratic-minded academics to create and sustain a global movement dedicated to radically transforming research universities to realize Bacon’s goal of advancing knowledge for “the relief of man’s estate”—that is, the continuous improvement of humanity—as well as Dewey’s utopian vision of an organic “Great Community” composed of truly participatory, democratic, collaborative, and interdependent societies.

Temple University Press is having a Back-to-School SALE!

TOP


SaleBOTTOM

Addressing the dynamics of bullying on screen and in schools

This week in North Philly Notes, Laura Martocci, author of Bullying, pens an open letter about the recent film A Girl Like Her about teenage bullying. 

To Whom It May Concern:

Bullying is hardly a new topic—in fact, it is so well-worn that most teens roll their eyes at the word. They know what we want to hear, and what answers they need to give before we’ll let them go back to their iPhones.

Perhaps this is because we try to speak, without ever really having listened.
Amy Weber, writer/director of A Girl Like Her, listened—and it is obvious in the movie she made and the characters she created.

downloadAvery (Hunter King), Brian (Jimmy Bennett), and Jessica (Lexi Ainsworth), cast in the roles of bully, bystander, and victim, respectively, bring complex, often conflicting motivations to their characters. As viewers, we get to watch the drama unfold from each of their perspectives. Ms. Weber garners sympathy for the “over-the-top” behavior of her antagonist (bully) through a plot device that puts a video-diary in her hands. We not only get a glimpse of how Avery sees things (mostly, her narcissism doesn’t allow her to see them at all) but also come to understand her choices through the context of her family. While this may not be enough to exonerate her, it does make her much more than a mouthpiece, and situates her choices as important “talking points” in the movie. 

Do her choices ring true?

What would the bully at your school do?

Similar questions surface around Brian, Jessica’s supportive friend. Brian not only listens, he enables Jessica to take actions that document the bullying. Hidden-camera videos at first help sustain Jessica by preventing her from slipping into denial about the abuse. However, Jessica ultimately cannot negotiate the onslaught, and takes drastic action. Attempting to come to terms with what Jessica has done, Brian is torn between his loyalty to her and a community desperately seeking answers.

Bullying_smBystanders do not need to witness a drastic action in order to wonder what they should do, whom they might tell, and what/how much they should say. How they think about and sort these questions is another important talking point that is facilitated by the film. Is telling someone “tattling” or “supporting the victim”?

Finally, there is Jessica, the victim. We see her torment, and in itself, this is a talking point. Would anyone at your school ever be victimized like this? (Hint, the ready answer is, of course, “No.” “No” is the start of the conversation.)

A Girl Like Her understands that bullying is not only—or even primarily—about specific bad behaviors, but about the dynamics that support these behaviors, the conflicts that paralyze action, and the nuances through which teen dramas are played out.  Our children cannot engage bullying as a topic unless the conversation around it is authentic. Weber’s film captures the complexities that signal authenticity, making it a very good place to start that conversation.

This is an important movie, one I would not only want my daughters to see, but to see in an environment that would facilitate discussion around it.

Sincerely,

Laura Martocci

Sizing it up

1986_regGarrett Delavan, author of The Teacher’s Attention, explains what prompted him to write a book about class size—and why smaller is better.

When I set out to write The Teacher’s Attention I’d been teaching for about six years in a second-chance high school. I was always amazed when teachers from other schools said how difficult that must be and how they admired me. I loved my job and couldn’t believe I got paid to hang out with these amazing young people.

But that got me thinking about why some classes were harder than others and why these other teachers thought my job was so much harder. I figured out that the difference was class size, which varied immensely in my school. These were frustrating (and frustrated) kids when my classes were large, which is the only size the teachers at the traditional schools ever got.

So I started out looking to read a book—not write one—about why small classes are better than big, and to explain why most everyone you talk to finds this obvious. It might also be a book that would then try to change the reader’s mind about the other thing most everyone thinks needs no further discussion: They’re too expensive. It turned out the books out there on class size focused primarily on test scores (and grades K-3) and not the positive relationships that make teaching more enjoyable and compulsory schooling more ethical.

Eventually my research led me to include school size and the length of time teachers and students stay together as just as important factors for cultivating mentoring relationships. I decided to opt out of the myth that our schools are academic failures (on average) and focus instead on school’s participation in American childrearing and racial injustice. What the book became was a school reform proposal that disputes the need for better average test scores and argues instead for a straightforward path to raising better-mentored kids and equalizing achievement.

While the book was in its final edits, I moved to a traditional middle school to gain more perspective on the system I’m criticizing. Yesterday I was at work getting set up in our new building and several teachers remarked with laughter that the new computer lab had only 30 computers. “What do we do with the rest of the class?” Last year I had to add two more desks to the thirty-six I started with. I asked the counselor my numbers this year and none was over thirty. I breathed a sigh of relief. He told me not to sigh yet because there was still a registration day coming up.

I may be ranting and raving this year on A Small Class Size Blog at www.classsize.org/blog.

%d bloggers like this: