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Democracy as Way of Life

This blog post is adapted from selections from “Renewing the Democratic Purposes of Higher Education,” forthcoming from Association of Governing Boards Guardians Series.

It is commonplace for Americans to assume that our democracy is summed up in the rights of individuals to vote and in the institutional forms of government created to carry out the will of the people. Though voting and government systems are important, they are at best the “machinery” of our democracy.

Rather, we must embrace an understanding of democracy as a way of life, what the great social reformer Jane Addams called “democracy as a social ethic.” Democracy is the day-to-day work of all of us innovating together to solve common problems. As a shared enterprise, everyone has power to participate in democracy.

For higher education institutions, an understanding of democracy as a way of life has several implications. It means that the education we offer, aimed as it may be to particular careers, professions and other walks of life, is always at the same time preparatory for democratic citizenship. It also means that higher education institutions have civic purpose. The economic, social, and civic impact of colleges and universities are part and parcel of their roles in democratic culture.

There are certainly challenges to democracy in the United States today. Institutions of higher education have distinct opportunities to bolster democracy through the education they offer, as well as emerging practices:

Liberal Arts as the Practice of Freedom

Though political polarities might suggest otherwise, the definition of “liberal” in “liberal arts education” is in fact most closely related to the meaning of the Latin word “liberalis,” or freedom. Encompassing a wide range of disciplines and not easily fit into a standard package, the ethic of liberal arts education places primary value on freedom of thought, critical analysis, open-mindedness, adaptivity, empathy, and life-long learning, so that graduates cultivate the habits of mind and practice that contribute to a thriving democracy.

In our wider democracy, there is both a decreased trust in public institutions and an isolation from and distrust of people who are different from us. There is meaningful opportunity in embracing the capacity for liberal arts to help students build empathy, open mindedness, and knowledge of the foundations of democracy and citizenship. By embracing their public purpose as beacons of free inquiry, colleges and universities can cultivate spaces for deliberation and dialogue on tough topics, cutting through polemics of “conservative” and “liberal” to present opportunities for thoughtful engagement on behalf of the wider community.

Universities as Community Members

Higher education institutions have immense opportunity to build democracy when they take seriously their public role as community members and generators of knowledge. Countering the notion that universities are elite “bubbles,” schools that have made “anchor institution”[i] commitments work to collaborate with the surrounding community around employment, training, local purchasing, infrastructure, and community-identified problems. Place-focused community engagement centers partner with community organizations and members as citizens to connect research, academic service learning, and civic engagement, to maximize collective impact, and to prioritize community needs in university interaction with the community.[ii] Everyone is a citizen of the community, and universities build democracy when civic practices are part of the education offered to students in the curriculum and co-curriculum and when these elements are intentionally integrated into how the university participates as a community member.

The university also centers its role as community member by taking seriously its public position as a center for the creation and sharing of knowledge. In a thriving democracy, individuals rely on the “public store” of knowledge to participate as citizens.[iii] This must include all sorts of knowledge that may be located outside of books and classrooms. Engaging local communities through partnership, experiential education, community-based research, and deliberative dialogue has the potential to break down boundaries around legitimate knowledge, bring the local community into the knowledge building process, and to build student appreciation for the different sorts of knowledge required to act as an effective citizen in a democracy.

Connecting Work and Citizenship

Institutions of higher education have great opportunity to further democracy when they help students connect work and professional identity with citizenship and participation in democracy. A robust understanding of democracy as integrated into the fabric of society indicates that citizenship is a means of living, rather than isolated volunteerism or participation in elections. Work, workplaces, and professional identities are thus sites for participation in democracy. Work serves a public purpose: it is not isolated from society, and it serves as a means for education and construction of human community. When professionals see their work as infused with a public mission and purpose, perhaps driven by a personal sense of vocation, they are practicing citizenship by understanding themselves as agents in an interdependent system. Work places and professions are also importantly potential sites of monumental social change, as evidenced by the long history of the labor movement and the work of professional guilds in the early twentieth century.

In our democracy, individuals most frequently see their work and roles as citizens as separate. Politics are understood to be largely an issue of elections and government, rather than the every-day “choice work” of community deliberation, change-making, and problem solving. Institutions of higher education have an opportunity to change this attitude by intentionally integrating civic education with post-graduation work preparation, and by centering institutional missions focused on education for the health of democracy. By helping students understand the links between the spheres of work and citizenship, universities help students prepare for lives that holistically integrate work of all sorts into the role of a citizen.


[i]  The Annie E. Casey Foundation. The Anchor Dashboard. Baltimore: The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2013. Accessed July 10, 2018.

[ii] Seattle University Center for Community Engagement. “Place Based Justice Network.” Accessed August 28, 2018.

[iii] Harry C. Boyte. Reinventing Citizenship as Public Work: Citizen-Centered Democracy and the Empowerment Gap. (Dayton: The Kettering Foundation, 2013), 23, accessed July 10, 2018.