At a formative stage in my career, I was a secondary school Peace Corps teacher in northern Benin. My community lies along the Niger River. After class, teachers wearing cool, bright cotton poured three rounds of tea from a small, blue pot, while sitting on a braided plastic mat in the shade at the edge of the road. Motorcycle taxi-men napped on their “motos” in the shade of a billboard, feet propped up on the handbars, green and yellow uniform shirts buttoned once near the top. In the stiff air, goats pressed firmly against the whitewashed walls of the nearby mosque.
During my English classes, I would ask my students complex questions in basic vocabulary: Who attends school in your home? What do you know about the scars on your cheeks? What do you grow in your fields? Why is it this way? We read from a handful of textbooks – 70 students under a corrugated roof. We held debates about ideas that emerged during these lessons and then created skits to illustrate what these ideas looked like in our own lives. Finally, we acted these skits in the open-air courtyard, to classmates and relatives under the neem canopy.
While it often seems that the primary purpose of higher education has become only job preparation, there is another movement afoot that focuses on restoring the civic mission of higher education. When the first universities, both public and private, were established in the early days of the republic, a significant emphasis was on preparing students for life in a democratic society.
The question I’d like to discuss today is what it is institutions of higher education, whether they be community colleges or four year institutions, should be doing to prepare their students to be engaged citizens after the graduate? What skills, habits, and dispositions would those of us living in these communities want them to have and how might we best teach this?
Over the years I have been involved with a number of deliberative dialogues in both the community and on campus. It is also a subject about which I teach and write. Since the purpose of this blog is to share our experiences and to learn from each other, I thought I would write about one of the biggest challenges I have encountered in doing dialogue work – it is what I call “The Dialogue/Action Dilemma.” Recent efforts at my university to engage students, faculty and administrators in dialogues about campus climate have raised again the issue for me.