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“Mind Your Business”: Educating for a Pluralist, Equitable, Truth-Telling Democracy
. . .we are each other’s
we are each other’s
we are each other’s
magnitude and bond.
—“Paul Robeson” by Gwendolyn Brooks
This issue of Diversity & Democracy is published as the nation reels from the COVID-19 pandemic and as white Americans have been forced to examine how white supremacist values embedded into systems for centuries continue to despoil the lives of African Americans and other people of color. The calls for a national reckoning with our shared past and the deep anguish caused by racial violations could, if we seize the moment with courage and truth-telling, lay the groundwork for a multiracial, multicultural democracy marked by justice, equity, and commitment to one another’s welfare.
The theme for this final issue of Diversity & Democracy is appropriately focused on what is required to create civic-minded institutions that seek justice and recognize diversity’s value. What it means to be civic minded has multiple meanings stemming from the use of the word mind. Academics typically use mind to refer to cognitive dimensions: reason, discernment, imagination, consciousness, thinking, perception. Another use is the idiom “I have a mind to . . . ,” which implies an intention to act in some way. Still another meaning is suggested by the electronic intoning of “mind the gap” on the London Tube, calling for distracted commuters to be aware of their environment. Paying attention matters. Finally, there is the dismissive “mind your own business,” a phrase Gwendolyn Brooks turns on its head in her 1984 poem “Paul Robeson.”
These four associations of the word mind—knowledge, intention, attention, and making other people’s business our own—illuminate a nuanced understanding. When we put the word civic in front of mind, these definitions take on yet more meanings. Because civic derives from the Latin civitas, meaning a city-state or its citizens, we move from “I” to “we.”
In these past months, cities and towns have provided public squares where citizens, many wearing protective masks, have poured into the streets for Black Lives Matter protests, demanding an end to violence against African Americans and to systemic racism everywhere. Rooting civic-minded practices in democratic values of justice helps create more inclusive, equitable political structures; stirs economic development in which all, not just some, benefit; and affirms the dignity, worth, health, and life of every person.
Mortar in the Bricks
When we reinforce civic-mindedness for democratic justice as the mortar in the bricks of structures, policies, laws, values, culture, and practices of a democratic nation—as the United States professes to be but cannot be without reckoning with its past and present—the importance of cultivating civic-mindedness increases. A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future, published by the Association of American Colleges and Universities in 2012, was a national call to action in the face of civic anemia in terms of knowledge, intention, attention, and understanding how “we are each other’s business.”
Since then, the health of democracies has endured an even more precipitous global decline. The Economist’s Democracy Index listed the US democracy as flawed for the first time in 2017, while in 2019, the index showed the worst average collective global score since its launch in 2006. Stakes could hardly be higher for investing in education for a pluralist, equitable, truth-telling democracy. Schools and colleges globally have typically served as sites for citizenship. Now the task is Herculean. While many colleges and universities “have a mind to” offer a richer array of civic opportunities for students, they need a far more comprehensive institutional approach developed with heightened mindfulness about equity and truth-telling. Small reforms will no longer suffice.
A Crucible Moment made such a challenge. It argued that each college and university needed to be a civic-minded institution. The report challenged institutions to model civic-mindedness daily in practices, policies, knowledge resources, and interactions. That vision suggests every employee, student, and local and global partner should play a role. No one gets a pass. Contributing through knowledge, intention, and attentiveness to educating for a pluralist and just democracy should be understood as everyone’s business.
The chart "What Would a Civic-Minded Campus Look Like?"—first published in A Crucible Moment—offers a glimpse of what a civic-minded institution might look like. Its vision continues to serve as an aspirational starting place to reach the four dimensions of civic ethos, literacy, inquiry, and action, practiced by everyone. As Yoni Appelbaum argues, “Democracy is . . . an acquired habit,” and “democratic behavior develops slowly over time, through constant repetition” (2018).
Expected Rather than Optional
Since A Crucible Moment was published, some progress has been made. More institutions are seeking to make civic learning pervasive rather than partial, expected rather than optional. Sixty-four percent of female seniors and 55 percent of male seniors who responded to a 2019 National Survey of Student Engagement had completed at least one service-learning course. More general education courses include experiences that expand students’ democratic knowledge and skills. Some departments are beginning to design majors that emphasize social responsibility and the public good. Most widely adopted high-impact practices have strong civic outcomes (Kuh 2008). But this portentous moment of democratic possibility demands far more. Social justice movements need to be a routine part of the curriculum at multiple levels. Both in and out of the classroom, students need to practice interrogating how systemic racism works even when masked as neutral. The demographics of who works and studies at colleges must finally begin to look like America’s future.
Student affairs professionals, already on the front lines of this work, must help cultivate personal and political engagement in the face of contestations among students about all manner of issues. At the same time, many students continue to spearhead social movements on and off campus to hold US democracy and global organizations accountable. More space for such activities is available through statewide civic learning and engagement mandates in Massachusetts, Virginia, and Maryland. The Higher Learning Commission’s adoption of similar educational outcomes as a new standard for accreditation promises to generate even more civic spaces for justice work at nearly one thousand colleges in nineteen states.
Perhaps, however, the most radical democratic reframing, running like rivulets through the four dimensions of civic ethos, literacy, inquiry, and action, is captured in Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “Paul Robeson.” A bedrock value of a civic-minded institution is that those who comprise the college are each other’s business, as are the surrounding community, nation, and globe. This requires serious mind-work (especially for white people), fresh scholarship, wide perspectives, vulnerable openness, and hands-on practice working toward shared goals with others across differences. Only then can everyone understand what it means now, and has meant in history, to be “each other’s harvest” and “each other’s magnitude and bond.”
We need to pose uncomfortable questions. How have colleges and universities, historically or today, diminished some people’s magnitude, ignoring the significance of some groups while overvaluing others? Who has been shut out or misrepresented in the stories recorded in college libraries and syllabi? Who is not represented among faculty, administrators, campus speakers, or events? By contrast, what policies create inclusive environments that help students learn what it means to live in a campus civitas capable of reflecting each other’s individual and collective magnitude? What academic areas of inquiry illuminate fictions long held, assumptions falsely embraced, or truisms that are only true for some? How can we begin to regard interrogating knowledge as a normative practice? How can we turn intentions into concrete actions?
In our nation today, dangerous, antidemocratic rhetoric screeches over the airwaves, internet, tweets, and ink, stirring fear that divides, demonizing already marginalized groups, spewing bigotry and hate, and lying repeatedly about facts—treacherously and deliberately. Committing to democratic mind-work in civic-minded institutions requires bravery, determination to discover evidence-based truths, attentiveness to what is happening in the world (and to whom), and a defiant stance that communal compassion and responsibility are foundational components of a democratic nation. This is the business of higher education. “We are each other’s harvest,” and we will reap what we sow.
Appelbaum, Yoni. 2018. “Americans Aren’t Practicing Democracy Anymore.” Atlantic, October 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/10/losing-the-democratic-habit/568336/.
Democracy Index. 2017. Economist. https://www.eiu.com/public/topical_report.aspx?campaignid=DemocracyIndex2017.
———. 2019. Economist. https://www.eiu.com/topic/democracy-index.
Kuh, George D. 2008. High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.
National Survey of Student Engagement. 2019. Indiana University. https://nsse.indiana.edu/research/annual-results/selected-results/closer-look-hip.html.
Caryn McTighe Musil is Former Senior Director, Civic Learning and Democracy Initiatives, at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.