Rutgers-Newark professor: Teaching civic participation

How social responsibility grew out of urban universities

These days a majority of college students attend institutions in cities, but that wasn’t always the case. Higher education—as it was conceived from the earliest days of the nation—purposely took place in rural areas, far from the immoral influences of fast-growing cities. A university education focused on philosophical discussions and classical literature.

The few city-based institutions of the day were considered inferior and served a largely low-income and minority population. In Universities and Their Cities: Urban Higher Education in America (2017, Johns Hopkins University Press), Steven Diner shows how those urban universities redefined education through a practical approach to instruction.

These cities became living laboratories for researching the nation’s mushrooming urban problems. Diner, a professor at Rutgers University-Newark, where he served as chancellor from 2002 to 2011, says, “City institutions pioneered what has come to be called the ‘democratization of higher education.’ ”

The purpose of America’s universities was to breed “well-heeled men.” Now it’s about becoming a complete person. It’s as though higher education had to adapt to reality rather than try to maintain its own reality.

That’s right. Of course, this issue about what is higher education is a long-standing dispute. Certainly, with the rise of professional education in the late 19th century, there was continually the question, “Is it about building character in young men? Is it about broad classical education, liberal education, or is it about preparing people for work?”

While those things can never be completely separated, this issue about education for employment is something that most liberal arts faculty find appalling. They argue that we shouldn’t be teaching people for jobs, we should teach them to think broadly because intellectual knowledge and ability will help them in whatever they do.

What’s interesting is the emergence in recent years of the idea that universities have a responsibility for building civic engagement and good citizenship. Back in the 19th century, the idea was to build character in these young men. The thought was that they were going to go out and leave the country, so we wanted to educate them in the proper “European” way.

In recent years, with the growing concerns that Americans are becoming disengaged and that we need to encourage a sense of social responsibility, much of higher education has embraced civic engagement. It’s being done through experimental learning, community engagement, and so on.

That’s relatively new—in the last 20 years or so—and again it’s a case of, “We’re not just here to build sharp minds and to expose people to knowledge. We’re also here to improve the society by turning out people who have a sense of civic responsibility.” That would not have been in the argument in the 60s, 70s and 80s.

That recently? In the last 20 years?

The civic responsibility aspect is quite recent, yes. There were some elements of it before, obviously, and it’s not that universities weren’t involved in trying to improve civic life. But, remember, the goal of education back then wasn’t to build civic character.

The leading educators thought they would improve the society simply by having more people in college and more minorities, and working class and low-income people in college. They believed that would solve the problem, so to speak. Now the thinking has become, once we get them in college, whatever their social backgrounds, we really have to teach them social responsibility.

The way to do that is by experiential learning, engagement in the community and service learning.

And that’s an outgrowth of the urban university.

Absolutely. There’s no question. Part of my argument is that much of what we think of as the mainstream of higher education today began and was developed in universities in cities at a time when they were a minority.

One of the big problems that small-town and rural colleges have today is that students want lots of opportunity for internships and experiential learning, primarily because they’re worried about getting a job when they graduate. These small towns don’t have those opportunities. So while 20 or 30 years ago elite students avoided big cities, now the more affluent kids are coming to cities in great numbers.

They want exposure to the world of work to figure out what they’re going to do when they graduate. That’s a big change.

Regarding that early history, you note that in 1890, fewer than 10 percent of students in medical school—and less than 15 percent of law and theology students—had a college degree.

That’s something that most people are surprised to learn about the history of higher education. When they began, medical schools and law schools, in particular, did not require a college degree. They were more like training schools. The law schools, for example, emerged out of the older tradition of “reading law.”

The way you became a lawyer was that you worked for an established lawyer for a couple of years, and that “trained” you to be a lawyer. In the early 1900s people began to understand that it was necessary and desirable for students to have an undergraduate degree before they entered a professional school.

That’s one of the reasons that undergraduate education expanded so much, especially in large cities where these professions were really needed.

Urban universities had been seen as something less than their rural counterparts. You cite education leaders in the 1940s who claimed urban university students lacked a sense of close campus unity and their lives were community-centered rather than college-centered.

The core argument was that 24/7 education, found on rural colleges, was a richer experience and better than just going to school and taking the subway home. But the more fundamental issue was that the term “urban university” came to be understood as a commuter institution serving predominantly working class and minority students.

For example, years ago I was a faculty member at University of the District of Columbia, and I applied for an American Council on Education Fellowship in administration. I was interviewed by several different people. One of my interviewers was the provost of American University.

At the end of my interview, he said, “You have an impressive record. You’ll have an extraordinary career ahead of you in urban universities.” And he named five or six schools that had large minority enrollments.

I said, “Yes, or American University.” And he said, “Oh no, we’re not an urban university.” At the time that utterly baffled me because I didn’t know, until I got into this research, that the term urban university was pretty much pejorative. The reason the book is called Universities and their Cities is that I wanted to discuss the changing and conflicting definition of urban universities.

Are there things that a rural school can learn from an urban school?

I think so. While rural schools don’t have as much opportunity for community engagement, there are still opportunities for students to do research in many fields in their local community. That’s one of the things that urban institutions have done very effectively—using the city itself for teaching. So yes, I think there’s a lot of opportunity to engage students with the external community, as a point of teaching.

Faculty and students can do research that’s based on where they are. And they may well study things that could make a difference to the community. That’s part of the history and goals of urban universities. The research was often done to address the needs of the city. It helped create public administration and urban government.

How else did urban universities, as they expanded, impact their cities?

That’s one of the big business issues for these institutions: How do you deal with your neighbors? In the book I addressed that in terms of the whole history of urban renewal and how universities played a significant role in basically kicking out poor people from their neighborhoods.

On the other hand, they were also responsible for rebuilding areas so that the cities have become much more attractive to middle class people. So, there’s a plus and a minus to that. There’s definitely an aspect that really hurts poor people who are displaced, but it’s also not good for cities to have only poor people and no tax base.

The transformation that has occurred in many cities, I’d say on the whole, is a good thing, and urban universities are smack in the middle of that. 

Tim Goral is senior editor of UB.

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