Dr. Harry Boyte’s talk opened with a question: What is the relationship between public universities and democracy? In response, Boyte, a long-time activist and noted scholar, shared an impressive breadth of knowledge and experience as he issued a brief history of public land grant institutions, and challenged us to (re)consider their place within our democracy. Public universities were created to practice, as Boyte terms, “education for life.” That is, their purpose was to be grounded in society, pursuing research that attends to citizens’ pragmatic needs. His concern: the academy has increasingly submitted to a culture of detachment and our imaginations regarding democracy have shrunk.
Boyte covered much ground, and even as he spoke my wheels were already turning. That which stood out both compels us (academics) to wrestle with our own complex questions, and calls us to action – personally and collectively (as The Academy). Here I consider what Boyte characterizes as “Education for the Head, the Heart, and the Hand.”
The Head. Simple. Training the mind is what we, as scholars and professors, as experts, do. It seems that Boyte’s agreement would also be his challenge – it appears to be all that we do. The real question here is, what then would we do with it? For Boyte, “citizenship is most powerfully expressed through your work.” Our expertise and our ability to share what we have learned becomes meaningful when we use it to open up “possibilities for building broad alliances across partisan and other divides,” which will “enable us to become agents and architects, not objects, of change.” Therefore, to be and develop what Boyte calls “citizen professionals” education for the head must be attended by personal and practical engagement.
The heart. How do we get at this? To consider this aspect I had consider my own experience as educator, and in terms of what has mobilized me to real-world action (“the Hand” for Boyte). In fact, my inability to get at how to “educate” the heart outside of my own experience, I think, exemplifies Dr. Boyte’s contention – “stories are extremely powerful.” Stories take us into a space where another’s experiences can be translated into a human(e) vernacular that we can understand beyond language, something that we are able to know in a deeper part of our selves – the Heart.
I have seen in my own work as a historian instructing pre-service teachers how connections between the lives of others and our own open up something that transcends academic knowledge. My passion for helping future teachers make such connections stems from my own (com)passion for those students whose lives these teachers will someday touch. I mean students at the bottom, students who act out, who come to school hungry and distracted. Students of color who labor under a narrative that paints them either as deficient or unmotivated. Those who are presumed too ungrateful to save themselves through the schooling they are generously given. When my students learn about segregation through housing policy and overt racial discrimination, when they hear about people who have endeavored against odds that have proven too much for an entire population to surmount, something changes in them:
It stood out to me when he said, “He stepped outside himself and considered the absurdity that he was doing surgery for the United States Army and couldn’t operate in his own hometown.” It amazes me that he was allowed to do surgery for the army, yet, he was denied a job at his local hospital due to the color of his skin.
It is the stories, the people that resonate. I won’t venture to theorize what happens to us in this space, how we come to see ourselves in others’ trials and pain. But I have seen it happen often enough that Boyte’s prescription rings true: “if higher education engages in the process of reviving stories, then we can become a root for democratic change.”
Which, yet, brings us to the Hand. I’ve found that, upon grasping the magnitude of injustice that has been perpetuated in our society, student reactions quickly shift from surprise to indignation. They become angry, and naturally they ask me, now that we have this knowledge what can we do with it? As Dr. Boyte contends is true for many, my students feel powerless. And this is where we fail. Where many of us, as Boyte maintains has happened for citizenship, have shrunk within our apolitical sanctuaries. We tell our charges that they merely need to be aware of these injustices, that that is enough.
What they are really asking us, however, is what will we do with it? As I was listening to Boyte’s talk I realized that we are always preparing students in the context of an abstract future. Yet he asserts that democracy is “a way of life” in every context. We should not be telling students that they can and will engage in making real change when they reach some indistinct yet-to-be. Their, and our, participation has already begun, and while we can use our knowledge to give students content and direction, we are not indispensable. As one student has made clear – they will do something with or without us:
I'm finally starting to wake up myself. I think the biggest problem with our "colorblind" society is that we're too embarrassed to admit that we see race, so we justify it with other factors… Several of my friends and I have been talking about white privilege a lot lately, and we've been challenging each other to become more aware of it. I think there really are a lot of people in this generation who can make a difference, it's just a matter of seeing the problem for what it is.
This student’s feedback alerted me to what I should be consciously doing. No doubt she and her friends were already “awake,” as many are.
Notably, Dr. Boyte did not leave us to wonder how we can speak to students’ frustrations. Again, democracy permeates every context, and hence, students must understand the difference between organization and activism. Activism is the fruit that we see of strategic, concerted, and constant preparation in the face that which challenges the true exercise of democracy. According to Boyte, organization is often invisible, and when social crises arise, of which we’ve seen many over the past few years, organization is what carries activism into movements. Boyte holds that, “at every level, educational institutions have enormous power that operates invisibly to shape identities, assumptions, and ways of looking at the world.” Not least of these are our colleges and universities, which are so influential in the lives of students who are awakening to their roles in society.
So, as scholars and educators, what roles will we play? We ought not shirk our responsibility to actively educate in ways that resonate beyond the walls of the academy. The knowledge we’ve acquired means that we cannot easily be excused for refusing to act as “co-creators rather than simply participants.”
 Harry C. Boyte and Blase Scarnati, “Transforming Higher Education in a Larger Context: The Civic Politics of Public Work,” in Civic Studies Approaches to an Emerging Field, ed. Peter Levine and Karol Edward Solton (Washington, DC: Bringing Theory to Practice, 2014), 77.
 Ibid, 87.
 Ibid, 78.