Diversity and Democracy

Who Teaches Democracy? The Role of Humanities Councils and Community Colleges

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand
singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or
at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of
the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else...

(Whitman 1860)

An object lesson in the intersection of diversity and democracy, Walt Whitman’s catalog of working Americans celebrates industry, commerce, craftsmanship, travel, trade, home, journeys—the days and nights of a populace not just engaged, but joyfully enrapt in their tasks. The voices harmonize as the spirit of an industrious country filled with individualism—“Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else...”—the musicality of the whole greater than its parts. In 1860, the year the poem was first published in Leaves of Grass, the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush was on; the first oil well in the United States was drilled; the Fresnel lens cast light nineteen miles out into the Graveyard of the Atlantic from Cape Lookout, North Carolina. Whitman’s anthem contains no hint of enslaved people, abolitionists, John Brown and Harpers Ferry, Abraham Lincoln, the impending Civil War, or the calamity of the Pemberton Mill. Still, each of his workers is an emblem of shared enterprise, of democracy, of America’s story: E pluribus unum, diversity and democracy, the essence of the “American Experiment.”

Any assessment of this experiment in any period of the country’s history must address the role of education. Well before Whitman’s time, Thomas Jefferson and others prescribed universal education as a necessity for the survival of the new nation. The imperative is no less important now. In his 2010 work Educating Democracy: Alexis de Tocqueville and Leadership in America, Brian Danoff proposes that “education is the most important task of the democratic leader,” who “educate[s his] fellow citizens so that they are more fit for democratic self-rule” (3). But who teaches democracy?

A Collaborative Project

The 1965 legislation creating the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the State Humanities Councils offers one response: “Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens. It must therefore foster and support a form of education, and access to the arts and the humanities, designed to make people of all backgrounds and wherever located masters of their technology and not its unthinking servants....The arts and the humanities reflect the high place accorded by the American people to the nation’s rich cultural heritage and to the fostering of mutual respect for the diverse beliefs and values of all persons and groups.” The arts and humanities will support, then, “an orderly continuation of free society, and provide models of excellence to the American people.” Affording “wisdom and vision” continues to be the work of State Humanities Councils and their partners across the country.

Within a few years of its inception, one way the North Carolina Humanities Council pursued this mission was by issuing a call for proposals addressing “Traditions in Transition.” The issues invoked are familiar: “autonomous individuals and social order…individual rights and the public good...equality and meritocracy...freedom of inquiry...freedom and authority...government by consent of the governed and toleration of and even encouragement of dissent” (Martin 1976). One of the funded projects, incorporating nine of the state’s community college campuses, engaged in a “Reassessment of the American Experiment” through scholar-led public forums. The forums explored “The Idea of America: The Philosophy and Vision of the Founders of the American Republic”; queried “The American Reality: To What Extent Have the Idea and the Vision Been Realized?”; and sought to provide “An American Agenda for the Beginning of Her Third Century.” They asked, what successes, what failures have there been? In the case of the latter, what resolve is there to address them?

In the intervening years, the Humanities Council has continued to support North Carolina’s community colleges in holding forums with parallel themes. These projects have addressed topics as far-ranging as the US Constitution’s bicentennial, the decline of agricultural society, and the haunted past and threatened future of Appalachian culture. Most recently, the Humanities Council supported “The Fight for Education Equality: A First-Hand Account,” a panel hosted by Central Piedmont Community College in conjunction with the exhibitions Courage: The Vision to End Segregation, the Guts to Fight for It and Para Todos Los Niños. As ideas in action, these forums share the foundational wisdom, as expressed by de Tocqueville himself in Democracy in America, that “nothing is more fertile in prodigies than the art of being free; but there is nothing more arduous than the apprenticeship of liberty” (1899).

Renewing the American Experiment

Most recently, an NEH-funded grant “Bridging Cultures to Form a Nation: Difference, Community, and Democratic Thinking” supports the Association of American Colleges and Universities and The Democracy Commitment as they collaborate with community college faculty and State Humanities Councils. The project aims to incorporate “themes of difference, community, and democratic thinking into humanities courses, and...guide faculty and curriculum development” (Musil 2011). The project and the partnership will revisit, extend, reimagine, and hopefully renew investment in the prominent role community colleges have served, as North Carolina’s Community College System mission states, in “develop[ing] a globally and multi-culturally competent workforce, and improv[ing] the lives and well-being of individuals.”

As the nation engages with constant change in the nature of its work, its demographics, and its educational missions, the arts and humanities continue as a resource at the cutting edge of democracy. Again, North Carolina provides a case in point. An article in the Raleigh News and Observer describes the recent influx of Haitians to a small rural town (Locke 2012). Much as the laborers in Whitman’s song, these workers are seeking a place to establish a community, a church, a life, and a livelihood that “belongs to him or her and to none else.” As is often the case, says Professor Jim Johnson from the University of North Carolina’s Kenan Flagler School of Business, “The jobs are...‘dirty, difficult and dangerous’...Nobody wants to do them, and the immigrants fill the gap.”

The plant where many of these newcomers work has established communication with Wayne Community College. There, as Director of Continuing Education Larry Johnson explains, workers find job skill training, but also classes in English as a Second Language, programs in job certifications, courses for personal enrichment, and a curricular track to degrees in higher education—in other words, an introduction and invitation to the twenty-first-century version of the American Experiment. Benjamin Eagles Fountain, Jr., president emeritus of North Carolina’s community college system and a founding member of the committee that established the North Carolina Humanities Council, once observed: “Many people are not quite sure what the humanities include—but they include all human endeavor.” As Jefferson, de Tocqueville, Whitman, and many others have argued through the centuries, an understanding and an appreciation of those endeavors offer the best way to preserve the opportunity to achieve them.


Danoff, Brian. 2010. Educating Democracy: Alexis de Tocqueville and Leadership in America. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Locke, Mandy. 2012. “Haitians Flock to Mount Olive.” News and Observer, January 22: A1+.

Martin, Donald F. 1976. North Carolina Humanities Committee Grant Application Proposal.

Musil, Caryn McTighe. 2011. Email communication, December 5.

North Carolina Commuity Colleges. N.d. “Mission and History.” http://www.nccommunitycolleges.edu/pr/MissionHistory/mission-history.htm.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. 1899. Democracy in America. Translated by Henry Reeve. http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/DETOC/1_ch14.htm.

United States Congress. 1965. The National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965.

Whitman, Walt. 1860. Leaves of Grass. Boston: Thayer and Eldridge.

Shelley Crisp is the executive director of the North Carolina Humanities Council.


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