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October 17, 2006

celebrating Campus Compact

(Chicago) I'm here to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Campus Compact, a network of 1,037 colleges and universities. Campus Compact supports and encourages several crucial trends in higher education: a move from "service" to collaboration; a rediscovery of geographical communities; a reflection on colleges' power as employers, builders, and consumers; and a turn to sophisticated research that requires learning with and from non-academics.

Institutions that embrace such work are recovering their fundamental purposes and missions, which are too often forgotten amid competition to attract the most qualified students and to generate the maximum number of peer-reviewed articles. Those measures of success are essentially pointless; what matters is whether we help our students--and the broader society--to develop through combinations of teaching, service, and research.

In the Campus Compact network, there is now an impressive array of excellent practice. Rigorous research (of which more is needed) is beginning to show the value of service-learning, community-based research, youth-media production, public deliberation, and other forms of engagement. However, such work will not endure or spread unless we can change policies regarding accreditation, tenure, promotion, and funding. Change cannot be accomplished one campus at a time, because institutions are forced to compete with one another. An important role of a network like Campus Compact is to press for reforms that change incentives for many institutions at once.

The value of Campus Compact's work extends beyond higher education to American democracy as a whole. The formal political system has become highly efficient at manipulating people to obtain outcomes that professionals (consultants, candidates, and lobbyists) have chosen. Sometimes, the professionals' goals are idealistic. But, as Joe Klein wrote recently, the public "has been sliced and diced by ... pollsters, their prejudices and policy priorities cross-tabbed, their favorite words discovered by carefully targeted focus groups." People know that they are being manipulated, and they resent it.

In contrast, the work that Campus Compact supports is open-ended. Organizers of community-based research or service-learning do not decide what should be done and then motivate, cajole, or manipulate students and community partners into doing it. Instead, they help students and partners make up their own minds about their goals and tactics. This approach reflects the best spirit of liberal education; it builds citizens' capacities for self-government; and it introduces Americans to a kind of politics that they should also expect from political parties and government agencies.

In several other respects, the work that Campus Compact supports is a powerful alternative to the mainstream of modern American politics.

  • In general, we invest far too little in the civic education (broadly defined) of young people, even though research finds that early civic experiences have lasting effects. But Campus Compact advocates and encourages effective youth civic development.
  • In general, our politics is constrained by the fact that investments can quickly be moved away from communities that decide to impose regulations (or cultural norms) that businesses don't like. But Campus Compact is a network of 1,000 important economic institutions--colleges and universities--that are rooted in their communities and that increasingly see their own interests as tied to their localities.
  • In general, we treat young people as baskets of problems or potential problems and rely upon surveillance, assessment, diagnosis, discipline, and treatment to stop them from acting in damaging ways. But Campus Compact embodies the alternative approach of "positive youth development," which recognizes that young people have special assets to contribute to their communities--creativity, energy, idealism, and a fresh outlook. If they are given opportunities to contribute, they develop in healthy ways. While major recent policies (such as the No Child Left Behind Act) have very little to say about providing positive opportunities for youth, Campus Compact and its members take that responsibility on themselves.
  • In general, our politics is state-centered. Liberals want the government to accept new tasks, such as health insurance; whereas conservatives believe that problems would be mitigated if the state were shrunk. Governments are important, but they are not the only institutions that matter. Furthermore, a state-centered view of politics leaves citizens little to do but inform themselves and vote. Campus Compact epitomizes a citizen-centered politics in which people form relationships with peers, deliberate about their common interests, and then use a range of strategies, some having little to do with the state.
  • I do not believe that we should turn our current political system upside-down so that it is completely open-ended, citizen-centered, local, and oriented toward youth development. But the overall balance today is wrong, and Campus Compact is helping to restore it.

    Posted by peterlevine at October 17, 2006 12:01 AM

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