Diversity and Democracy

From the Editor: Transformative Partnerships at Home and Abroad

In front of Boston University's Metcalf Center for Science and Engineering stands a sculpture by Sergio Castillo titled "Explosion." According to the Boston Art Commission, the sculpture represents a proton collision: the cascading array of particles produced in a burst of energy when two protons collide. But the sculpture is also a physical manifestation of another, less ephemeral kind of transformative combination: that of iron, chromium, and other elements that constitute stainless steel, a ubiquitous alloy in the modern world.

Steel is a critical example of the principle that individual elements can be more effective when combined. In steel, elemental metals, melted and melded in a crucible or modern converter, maintain their chemical identities but reconstitute their crystal formations to create a material with ideal physical properties for an array of uses. With its tensile strength and ductility, it's no surprise that steel has been central to much of the modern world's mechanical infrastructure: the buildings, byways, and even artworks that connect humankind.

Energy, strength, and flexibility, directed toward the purpose of building a civic infrastructure for society: like steel from a crucible, these are among the skills and capacities we might wish to emerge from our modern crucible moment. As the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement argued in its recent report, A Crucible Moment: College Learning for Democracy's Future (2012), the current moment of civic malaise and disinvestment is precisely the time for colleges and universities to reclaim their role in ensuring America's democratic health. A Crucible Moment urges higher education institutions to

  1. Foster a civic ethos across all parts of campus educational culture
  2. Make civic literacy a core expectation for all students
  3. Practice civic inquiry across all fields of study
  4. Advance civic action through transformative partnerships, at home and abroad. (31)

This issue of Diversity & Democracy collects a range of examples of creative leadership and action related to this fourth imperative. Drawing from an array of sites—community colleges, state colleges, liberal arts schools, and research universities; public and private institutions anchored in a range of geographic locations; associations and collaboratives reaching across geopolitical and organizational boundaries—the issue provides snapshots of the kinds of partnerships currently being formed in the name of strengthening higher education's role in building a more civically engaged, democratic future.

Each of these partnerships aspires in some way toward transformation. At Tulane University, that transformation takes the form of a newly engaged university and a revived community. In The Democracy Commitment and the American Democracy Project, it appears in civic practices strengthened through collaboration between community colleges and state colleges and universities. Across international boundaries, it glimmers in the conversations of intellectual leaders from the Council of Europe and the International Consortium for Higher Education, Civic Responsibility, and Democracy and in the research practices of students from Defiance College. It is evident in democratic discussions of teaching and learning practiced at Western Washington University; in the service-learning partnerships of Honolulu's Pālolo Valley Homes; in New York City's museum–community college partnerships; and in engaged pedagogies practiced in South Memphis.

Each of these partnerships, whatever its scale or framework, illustrates the principle that individual entities are stronger and more effective when they work together. Moreover, no individual or group emerges from the partnership unchanged. Students become more skilled in practicing the skills and dispositions that allow them to actively engage in their communities. Universities become more effective hubs for research and education. And communities and their constituents gain engagement with higher education and concomitant access to its many resources.

This is what I see when I look at the steel beams of Sergio Castillo's sculpture: the potential for individual entities to combine their strengths and energies and emerge collectively transformed, symbolically and substantively. I hope that this issue of Diversity & Democracy evokes similar responses in readers aspiring to similar ends.

References

Boston Art Commission. N.d. "Explosion." http://www.publicartboston.com/content/explosion.

National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement. 2012. A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy's Future. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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