Higher Education and the Politics of Free Spaces

Huffington Post Blog by Harry C. Boyte on September 03, 2014

On both left and right today, there is renewed attention to what might be called “middle spaces,” places between the individual and the impersonal structures of modern life. I’ve been thinking about such spaces and their little remarked connection to the movement for democratizing higher education.

The concept, as Sara Evans and I developed it in our book, Free Spaces: The Sources of Democratic Change in America, has overlap with progressive and conservative ideas. It also differs from both.

The concept conceives of middle spaces as full of dynamism and democratic energies, potentially sites of citizen power and a culture of freedom, as well as sites of continuity. Free spaces are seedbeds of movements for participatory democracy.

The politics of free spaces holds implications for concepts of the good society, for mainstream politics, and for policy change. Here, I focus on its implications for how we organize for educational reform.

In a recent blog post, “The Spirit of Revolution,” Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard Colleges, draws on the late political theorist Arendt’s concept of “spaces of freedom” to make a progressive argument about the civic movements around the world in recent years.

Arendt believed that the “revolutionary spirit” which infused movements like the American, French, and Russian revolutions (she also saw such freedom spirit in the civil rights movement, as did I and all who participated), involved not simply an effort to destroy oppressive structures. It also involved “the experience of being free…an exhilarating awareness of the human capacity of beginning.” She called this “the revolutionary treasure.” She argued that it involved “the desire to found stable structures,” as well as to tear down old ones. These she conceived as “new yet lasting governmental institutions,” as Berkowitz put it.

The problem, for Arendt, was that the republics generated by such revolutions “left no space for the very freedom that constituted part of the revolutionary treasure.” In the United States, Arendt believed the mistake was that US revolutionaries had “failed to incorporate the township and the town-hall meeting into the Constitution,” a tradition of localized spaces of freedom.

Berkowitz draws large implications from the Arendtian concept. From the Obama campaign of 2008 or the Arab Spring to the Scottish Independence movement which I described in my last blog, the freedom spirit is visible. And as he suggests, the question is how it can be sustained. “Around the globe revolutionaries are struggling with Arendt’s question of how to find a spirit of freedom within a political order.”

Seemingly a world apart, an aggressive new intellectual movement among conservatives, sometimes called “reformicons,” is reasserting the importance of middle spaces, for different reasons. It has had remarkable success in beginning to shift the tone and policy agenda of Republicans. Reformicons, as Sam Tannenhaus described such intellectuals in a New York Times magazine article last summer, call for “jettisoning… orgiastic tax-cutting, the slashing of government programs, the championing of Wall Street — and using an altogether different vocabulary, backed by specific proposals, that will reconnect the party to middle-class and low-income voters.”

Tannenhaus featured Yuval Levin, the youthful editor of the magazine National Affairs, as a major architect of the new movement. I got to know his views not only from his writings but also from a debate we had on “Civil Society and the Future of Conservatism” at the Hudson Institute, shortly after the 2012 election.

A critic of Mitt Romney’s focus on individual achievement and unbridled markets during the election, Levin is also a critic of what he sees as Democrats’ focus on government as the solution to social problems. Yuval emphasizes middle spaces in contrast to both. As he put it in “The Real Debate,” an essay in The Weekly Standard, the disagreement between conservatives and progressives is “about the nature of intermediate space and of the mediating institutions that occupy it: the family, civil society, and the private economy.”

In Levin’s view, as Tannenhaus describes, liberal government “is a ‘technocratic’ monolith, with a master class of experts who construct and administer large-scale programs that subordinate the needs and wishes of the public to the appetites of the policy makers.”

Levin’s policy agenda is not simply anti-government. He “would recast the federal government as the facilitator and supporter of local institutions.” Like the older Mediating Structures Project of the American Enterprise Institute, he see local institutions as bulwarks of values of work, responsibility, loyalty, connection to place and love of country.

Missing from Levin’s view is any mention of civic power or the spirit of freedom experienced in democratic movements.

In Free Spaces, Evans and I describe settings such as religious congregations, locally rooted unions and businesses, schools, fraternal and sisterly organizations, cultural groups, and other local face-to-face settings. These, we argue, have been seedbeds of democratic movements in American history

The concept of free spaces shares with conservatives emphasis on “intermediate space.” Like conservatives, we emphasize the ways middle spaces have been eroded by the rise of technocracy. But the concept puts the question of power and freedom back on center stage. It shares with progressives a focus on struggle against oppressive conditions. It lifts up the rich tradition of government as an empowering partner with the people — not as the center of the action — and it points toward a different kind of politics, beyond partisan polarization.

Huffington Post Blog by Harry C. Boyte on September 03, 2014

For intermediate spaces to become free spaces requires ownership by participants, space for self-organizing. Free spaces also entail public qualities of diversity of belief and background, cultivating capacities to work and form relationships across partisan and other differences. Public qualities include public imagination, an awareness of the possibilities of broad democratic changes in the society. Free spaces are not “cultures of resistance,” simply oppositional. Nor are they “safe spaces,” as the idea is commonly used in today’s therapeutic society.

Higher education plays crucial, if largely unnoticed, roles in the fate of free spaces. It socializes in professional identities, shaping students’ plans for careers and lives. If it graduates students who see themselves as experts outside a common civic life who fix people and provide solutions, higher education erodes free spaces. If it prepares civic leaders who help to create work sites which develop civic agency and public confidence, colleges and universities can be catalysts for innumerable free spaces, unleashing immense democratic change.

In the forthcoming collection, Democracy’s Education(Vanderbilt University Press, 2015), the political philosopher Albert Dzur, in “The Democratic Roots of Academic Professionalism,” argues that the animating value for faculty members is freedom, the desire to control their work. This value is now under siege in many settings. It is in faculty members’ self-interests to link their own freedom to a broader project of freedom.

Put differently, it can be said that the democratic movement in higher education is inextricably linked to the future of democracy itself. At the center of this connection is the existence and rebirth of free spaces.

Harry C. Boyte, Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College and a Senior Fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, is editor of Democracy’s Education.