Ideologues on both sides are trying to frame the 2012 election as a choice between governments and markets. This is a profoundly false choice.
What it leaves out is everything between the state and the workplace—the vast civic domain where Americans band together in voluntary associations and non-profit organizations to strengthen their communities, tackle common problems and enhance their everyday lives.
The nation’s four-year colleges and universities are a prime example. In a new report for PPI, Ira Harkavy and Rita Hodges of the University of Pennsylvania’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships describe them as “anchor institutions” which represent immense concentrations of human and economic capital within some of America’s neediest communities. They enroll 20 million students, have $400 billion in endowments and generate $1 trillion in annual economic activity.
Rather than assume that government should be solely responsible for delivering public services, Harkavy and Hodges call a “democratic devolution”—new civic partnerships between government and “higher eds” to tackle urgent community problems, especially low-performing public schools. It is time, they maintain, to make service to their communities once again an integral part of the public mission of every U.S. college and university.
UPENN’s civic engagement also suggests that embedding course work within community service projects helps students as well as residents of Philadelphia neighborhoods. Studies of the Netter Center’s award-winning work have found that Penn undergraduates learn more and mature faster by applying their skills in real life settings than sitting in classrooms all day.
Fortunately, Americans are not condemned to a sterile choice between big government and weak government. In Democratic Devolution: How America’s Colleges and Universities Can Strengthen Their Communities, Ira and Rita show how we can also tap the resources and talents of America’s “third sector” to solve problems from the ground up.
I hope you find the piece of interest, and we welcome your comments.
President, Progressive Policy Institute