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Pursuing Franklin's Democratic Vision for Higher Education

…nothing is of more importance to the public weal, than to form and train up youth in wisdom and virtue. Wise and good men are, in my opinion the strength of a state: much more so than riches or arms, which, under the management of Ignorance and Wickedness, often draw on destruction, instead of providing for the safety of a people.
—Benjamin Franklin to Samuel Johnson, August 23, 1750

Democracy has been given a mission to the world, and it is of no uncertain character. I wish to show that the university is the prophet of this democracy, as well as its priest and its philosopher; that in other words, the university is the Messiah of the democracy, its to-be-expected deliverer.
—William Rainey Harper, The University and Democracy (1899)


Benjamin Franklin, in founding the University of Pennsylvania (then the Academy of Philadelphia), conveyed an expansive and highly democratic educational vision. While many colonial colleges were established to prepare the scions of wealthy families, Franklin’s vision was far more egalitarian in nature (Brands 2000). He was also profoundly skeptical of classical education. As historian John Hardin Best explains,

Commenting in his usual pungent style, [Franklin] noted that Greek and Latin were the “quackery of literature.” Further, he wrote that they were the “chapeau bras” of learning, like the hat carried by an elegant European gentlemen [sic], a hat never put on the head for fear of disarranging the wig, but always carried quite uselessly under the arm (Best 1962).

What set Franklin’s notion of education apart was his insistence that a college draw students of ability from all social strata and actively and purposefully cultivate civic values in these students and provide them with the practical skills necessary to address the pressing problems of the day. In short, a central purpose of higher education was service to society and to the commonwealth.

Franklin’s blend of pragmatic civic idealism proved prescient.

In the years immediately following the American Revolution, hundreds of colleges were founded with the express purpose of upholding the fledgling democracy (Rudolph 1962). In the nineteenth century, this sentiment found expression in the Morrill Act of 1862, which established land-grant colleges and universities. These institutions were intended not only to advance the mechanical and agricultural sciences but to expand access to higher education and to encourage active citizenship. For example, in 1873 the trustees of the Ohio Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Ohio State) said that they intended not just to educate students as “farmers or mechanics, but as men, fitted by education and attainments for the greater usefulness and higher duties of citizenship.” The Wisconsin Idea, which began in earnest in 1903, similarly underscored the ideal that universities can and should take an active role in spurring societal change. When Charles Van Hise became president of the University of Wisconsin, he and his former classmate Governor Robert La Follette resolved to make “the boundaries of the university…the boundaries of the state.” When asked what spurred the progressive reforms that spread across the Midwest in the early twentieth century, Charles McCarthy, the first legislative librarian of the United States said “a combination of soil and seminar”—universities dedicated to solving pressing, practical problems and to fostering enlightened civic and political leadership.

Reviving the Civic Imperative

By the 1980s, however, this proclaimed commitment to civic engagement had grown increasingly hollow. In part this was because American higher education had dramatically changed. In the twentieth century, colleges and universities emerged as central societal institutions and were beset with many competing demands. In 1900, barely 4 percent of all high school graduates attended college. By 1970, that number had grown more than tenfold (45 percent). Fueled by grants from the federal government, universities expanded their research efforts and came to depend on these revenues for their financial stability. Undergraduate education took a back seat at many institutions. The reasons for attending college began to shift. Economic purposes gained ascendancy. Data from an annual survey of more than 200,000 incoming freshmen by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA show that in 1969, 80 percent of incoming freshmen believed that developing a meaningful philosophy of life was a very important goal; by 1996, that percentage had diminished to 42 percent. In 1971, half of the students (49 percent) said they were attending college “to be able to make more money”; by 1991, that figure had climbed to three-quarters (74.7 percent). Increasingly, the public came to view a college education as a ticket to securing a good job—a private rather than a public good.

There was also a sense that our common life was being eroded, a state of affairs powerfully illustrated by political scientist Robert Putnam in the image of Americans “Bowling Alone” (Putnam 1995). Political engagement dramatically declined. Among college freshmen surveyed by HERI, the percentage who agreed that it is “important for me to keep up to date with political affairs” declined from 58 percent in 1966 to 26 percent in 1998. Electoral turnout among 18–24–year-olds declined from 42 percent in 1972 to 28 percent in 2000. In 1989, the American Political Science Association’s Task Force on Civic Education for the 21st Century concluded: “We take as axiomatic that current levels of political knowledge, political engagement, and political enthusiasm are so low as to threaten the vitality and stability of democratic politics in the United States.”

At many institutions any pretense at promoting political engagement or civic agency had receded into the background. As Frank Newman, then-president of the Education Commission of the States, tellingly argued in his seminal Carnegie report, Higher Education and the American Resurgence (Newman 1985), “If there is a crisis in education in the United States today, it is less that test scores have declined than it is that we have failed to provide the education for citizenship that is still the most significant responsibility of the nation’s schools and colleges.” In a meeting with college and university presidents the following year, Newman observed that after having visited numerous campuses, he found faculty “remarkably resistant” to the idea that “they had a responsibility for more of their students’ education than simply the development of the students’ knowledge about their own discipline.”

This state of affairs—the changing nature of the academy, concerns over our fraying social capital, and anxiety over the future of our democracy—generated considerable dissonance within the academy. People began to act. First dozens then hundreds and finally tens of thousands of faculty members and administrators began actively pursuing the revitalization of the civic purposes of American higher education on their campuses and through a number of key associations (Hartley and Hollander 2005).

Emergent Civic Engagement Strategies

What emerged was a broad-based civic engagement movement. Civic engagement has proven to be something of an elastic term. For some it denotes any activity that involves groups or communities external to the academy. Others equate it with the cultivation of political knowledge or of political processes, and perhaps even a sense of political agency. Still others use the term to describe the development of democratic, creative, caring, committed citizens who actively contribute to creating a democratic, just society. The conception of civic engagement (and practices intended to promote it) has evolved considerably over the past two decades.

In the 1980s, civic engagement strategies focused squarely on volunteerism (often referred to as public service.) The idea was that if we could get students into the community, they would develop a sense of social responsibility and thereby become better future citizens. The early 1990s saw a shift in strategy as individuals began advocating for the purposeful integration of community-based experiences and the curriculum (that is, service learning) (Kendall 1990). This approach proved immensely popular. The growth of Campus Compact, a national coalition of college and university presidents and a leading proponent of service-learning, underscores the degree to which this pedagogy gained currency. In 1985, Campus Compact was founded by three university presidents; today it has nearly 1,300 members, approximately a quarter of all colleges and universities in the United States.

Through the mid- and late 1990s a number of civic engagement efforts were undertaken. The American Association for Higher Education’s annual forum on faculty roles and rewards sought to promote a broader conception of scholarship, especially the scholarship of engagement—applying disciplinary expertise for the betterment of society (Boyer 1990, 1996). Another notable effort was the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ American Commitments project, which was launched in 1993 and over the next eight years worked with more than 160 institutions to grapple with the pressing challenges of preparing students to live in our diverse democracy. Many institutions of higher learning undertook significant curricular change efforts during the 1990s (as many as three-quarters by some estimates) and some of these sought to advance a wider public purpose (Hartley 2002). Some colleges and universities began experimenting with democratic deliberation—structuring dialogue and debate regarding local and national issues. That said, the predominant form of civic engagement on campuses was expressed programmatically through volunteerism and service learning.

Service learning’s success can be explained in part because it proved to be a remarkably powerful pedagogy and a highly useful means of conveying disciplinary knowledge (Astin and Sax 1998; Eyler and Giles 1999; Stanton, Giles, and Cruz 1999). A student in an environmental science course not only reviews research describing the effects of industrialization, she helps measure them in her own city. A sociology student not only reads about homelessness, he helps design and conducts a census of the population and develops a richer understanding of who these individuals are. Data gathered from 22,363 students who participated in HERI’s freshman survey four years later show that participation in service learning influences participants’ choice of careers in service fields, increases awareness of community issues, imparts to students a sense of personal efficacy (“I can make a difference.”), and fosters greater commitment to social activism (Astin and Sax 1998).

The transformational aims that drove the service-learning movement in its early years (Stanton et al. 1999), however, were increasingly tempered over time. For many service learning practitioners, acceptance by disciplines became an end, rather than a means to realize democratic educational and societal ends. Similarly, a narrow focus on student learning outcomes replaced the powerful animating goal that initially inspired the service learning movement; namely, to create a truly engaged academy dedicated to helping to create a more equitable and just society. The inclination to place the need for academic legitimacy as a primary goal of the service-learning movement was also reflected in debates regarding emergent institutional efforts around community and political engagement. While some individuals held that addressing pressing real-world problems and working in reciprocal and democratic partnerships with the local community ought to be the central work of the academy (Boyte and and Kari 2000; Harkavy 1996), others saw community impacts as a secondary and ultimately subsidiary consideration, a hoped-for byproduct.

By the late 1990s, the service learning movement had in a real sense lost its way—in practice at many institutions its purpose had become reduced to merely another pedagogical technique or method. The ideal of working to create a more-democratic society had become much less prominent (Harkavy and Benson 1998). Recognition of this state of affairs is reflected in the President’s Declaration on the Civic Responsibility of Higher Education, which grew out of a conference cosponsored by the American Council on Education and Campus Compact in 1999. (The document was ultimately signed by more than 500 college and university presidents.) It states:

We are encouraged that more and more students are volunteering and participating in public and community service, and we have all encouraged them to do so through curricular and co-curricular activity. However, this service is not leading students to embrace the duties of active citizenship and civic participation. […] We must teach the skills and values of democracy, creating innumerable opportunities for our students to practice and reap the results of the real, hard work of citizenship.

The implementation question is how specifically can a given institution (in our case a private research university) translate this broader and more-robust conception of democratic civic engagement into practice?

Recommitting to Franklin’s Democratic Vision

Penn’s experience in many respects reflects the evolution of the broader civic engagement movement. Over the past two decades many individuals—senior administrators, faculty, staff, students, and community partners—have collaborated in an effort to better fulfill Franklin’s far-reaching democratic vision, by developing democratic, mutually beneficial partnerships with communities and schools in the Philadelphia region, particularly in Penn’s local ecological community of West Philadelphia.

To offer one recent example of a region-wide effort, a few years ago Mary Summers, senior fellow at Penn’s Fox Leadership Program, developed a course with the assistance of the Netter Center for Community Partnerships. Professor Summers and her students began with a simple and powerful question: Why do only 60 percent of Philadelphia residents eligible for food stamps participate in the program? Partnering with the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger and the Philadelphia Higher Education Network for Neighborhood Development (PHENND), a consortium of thirty-six colleges and universities in the greater Philadelphia area, Summers became principal investigator of a research project funded by the USDA that involved faculty and students from fourteen area colleges and universities (Porter, Summers, Toton, and Aisenstein 2008). Ultimately, the campaign screened 7,463 potential clients and enrolled 2,123 people. The research not only identified bureaucratic hurdles that prevented greater enrollment, but the data also were used to exert pressure to change policies in order to eliminate those barriers. (For example, County Assistance Offices expanded the use of phone interviews rather than requiring face-to-face interviews to become enrolled.) Helping someone eligible for food stamps enroll is a worthwhile service (and Summers and her collaborators certainly succeeded on that count), but collaborating with community members and local agencies across the Philadelphia area in conducting research and using the resulting new knowledge to challenge and change public policy is exemplary democratic civic engagement.

Increasing numbers of faculty and students have joined in these efforts. In 1991–2 three faculty members taught four academically based community service (ABCS) courses to approximately 100 students. In the 2007–8 academic year, fifty-nine ABCS courses were taught by forty-nine faculty from eight schools and twenty-one departments and involved more than 1,500 Penn undergraduate and graduate students.

Efforts are also now being made to assess the impact of such experiences on Penn students. In 2004, Penn political scientist Henry Teune began an experimental seminar on undergraduate democratic development and civic engagement. The course conceptualized and pretested items for a survey of Penn undergraduates. The survey has been employed five additional times and some other universities are now using the instrument to gather data. The survey, in the tradition of political socialization research, focuses on gathering data in several key areas: democratic values and dispositions, civic literacies and understandings, competencies and communication, and action and engagement. The data, though preliminary, are revealing and relevant to our discussion. First, democratic values are the most robust predictors of democratic engagement. Students who see the value in democratic decision making and have come to accept a measure of civic responsibility are far more likely to act on these convictions than those who have given scant thought to such issues.

Another notable finding is the fact that students that have been involved in ABCS courses and/or other community service activities in West Philadelphia are far more likely to score well on indicators for committed democratic citizens (such as keeping up-to-date on political affairs and understanding how the political process works). This early finding suggests that involvement with the local community and democratic problem solving undertaken in ABCS courses has the potential to influence the democratic dispositions and future political engagement of students.


Amy Gutmann, Penn’s current president, is a distinguished political philosopher whose scholarly work has explored the role universities play in advancing democracy and democratic societies. In her inaugural address on October 15, 2004, President Gutmann unveiled a comprehensive “Penn Compact” designed to advance the university “From Excellence to Eminence.” Although the compact’s first two principles—increased access to a Penn education and the integration of knowledge—have significant implications for our discussion, the third principle is particularly relevant:

The third principle of the Penn Compact is to engage locally and globally. No one mistakes Penn for an ivory tower. And no one ever will. Through our collaborative engagement with communities all over the world, Penn is poised to advance the central values of democracy: life, liberty, opportunity, and mutual respect. Effective engagement begins right here at home. We cherish our relationships with our neighbors, relationships that have strengthened Penn academically while increasing the vitality of West Philadelphia.

Penn as an institution is now strongly oriented to advancing democratic, civic work (Benson, Harkavy, and Puckett 2007). Needless to say, Franklin’s original vision of an institution dedicated to preparing a moral, engaged democratic citizenry cannot be fulfilled with a set of programs, no matter how extensive. It must become a central organizing principal of the institution, embedded in its DNA. And that is a primary goal of Gutmann’s Penn Compact.

To be true to this calling, Penn also needs to scrutinize the fruits of its labors: Can our graduates speak with a measure of authority on pressing policy issues, particularly those directly relevant to their majors? Are students equipped and encouraged to act on that knowledge through participatory problem solving learning? Penn, indeed each college and university, needs to examine how it goes about its everyday business. Mahatma Gandhi once famously observed that “The means are the ends in process.” We cannot foster democratic habits and dispositions among our students unless we model democratic behavior in our partnering with the community, in the workings of our deliberative bodies (the student government and the faculty senate), in the way we research, teach, and learn.

The bitter aftermath of Hurricane Katrina graphically revealed what Jonathan Kozol (2005) poignantly labeled “the shame of the nation”—the disasters of extreme poverty, persistent deprivation and pernicious racism that occur daily, and too often invisibly, across much of urban America. Tragically, many of these daily disasters occur right outside the ivy-trimmed walls of the nation’s foremost universities. Among the most significant and pressing challenges facing American higher education in the early decades of the twenty-first century is how can it powerfully and effectively contribute to radically reducing the pervasive, ongoing, seemingly intractable problems of our inner cities, as well as to radically reducing, in another poignant phrase from Kozol, America’s “savage inequalities.” Meeting that challenge would require a far more comprehensive and powerful form of civic engagement—one that is intent on changing higher education to help change society for the better. To borrow a phrase from the primary source of Franklin’s philosophy, Francis Bacon, the “rightly placed” goal, in our judgment, for American higher education is to help create a genuine participatory democracy so that America (finally) realizes the democratic promise of America for all Americans.


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Ira Harkavy is the associate vice president and director of the Netter Center for Community Partnerships; Matthew Hartley is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education—both of the University of Pennsylvania.

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