Over at the blog of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History, Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn discusses a fascinating new project from the Association of American Colleges and Universities called “Bringing Theory to Practice.” Here is a description of the project:
The Bringing Theory to Practice Project (BTtoP) encourages colleges and universities to reassert their core purposes as educational institutions, not only to advance learning and discovery, but to advance the potential and well-being of each individual student, and to advance education as a public good that sustains a civic society.
The Project supports campus-based initiatives that demonstrate how uses of engaged forms of learning that actively involve students both within and beyond the classroom directly contribute to their cognitive, emotional, and civic development.
Lasch-Quinn encourages us to check out the project’s first volume (available free online) titled Civic Provocations.
What I really like about Lasch-Quinn’s post is her call to embrace the civic mission of the college or university without sacrificing intellectual quality. A taste:
I harbor serious doubts about much that is said and done in the name of learning by doing, the move toward relevance, and other such programs, which often seem little more than a way to gut the curriculum of its very raison d’être–its intellectual content and quality. Just having a public dimension does not guarantee anything worthy, just as community engagement can happen for ill as well as good. And on the other side, the most arcane, esoteric studies may actually turn out someday to have a bearing on a crucial, suddenly relevant public issue. Even if not, they can be worth undertaking in themselves. To be too literal (and present-minded) about whether scholarship has a public payoff obscures more subtle ways that work–how it is done, as well as what is done–can have a bearing on the health of the public sphere. Yet I am also with many of those whose work does have a clearly discernible public element in today’s. If none of those committed to a life of the mind are not outward looking, addressing matters of public concern and speaking to a wider public, we would undoubtedly see both intellectual life and democracy wither away. What often baffles me is why we can’t value the best of both worlds; why we cannot hold different visions, traditions, practices in our minds at the same time.
As my readers know, I have been getting more and more interested in the way the study of history can contribute to a civil society (I have a chapter on this idea in my forthcoming Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past). I am now more committed than ever to the discipline of public history as a means of teaching historical thinking skills to non-academic audiences, including K-12 teachers. My own experience working on public history-related projects has been an inspiration on this front.
But in the last couple of years I have become more and more skeptical about the role that colleges and universities might play in cultivating a vibrant civic life. I have even wondered if the things I want to do can only be accomplished outside of academia. I am sure a lot of it has to do with being a department chair and seeing what might be called the “dark side” of the academy–budgets, course loading, institutional compromises, and a generally conservative approach to change. The wheels turn very slowly in academic institutions and we only have one life.
Books like James Banner Jr.’s Becoming a Historian, my encounter with thousands of history buffs and learners at teacher seminars and public lectures, and my own interest in the possibility of a center for American history and civic life have pushed me in this direction.