Ira Harkavy, director of the Netter Center for Community Partnerships at the University of Pennsylvania, has long been a proponent of higher education’s role in improving its community as well as educating students.
In a new book in the Council of Europe Higher Education Series, Harkavy and his co-editors and contributors argue that higher education also has a big role to play in society in general.
Reimagining Democratic Societies: A New Era of Personal and Social Responsibility calls on institutions of higher education across the globe to advance democracy and democratic societies around the world.
“As we proceed into the 21st century, it is important to think through what democracy looks like now and how it might improve and function better in the future,” Harkavy said. “The central point of the book is that it is essential for universities to help lead in the reimagining and improvement of democracy, as well as to serve a larger social purpose.
“There’s no question that democratic societies have increasingly spread across the world,” he said, “but there are tremendous problems facing them: declining civic participation and engagement in the political process, increasing poverty and growing disparities and a declining faith in nearly all major societal institutions. All of these contribute to a lack of willingness to compromise and to work to find solutions to significant problems.”
Harkavy also finds the increasing reemergence of xenophobia and racism of great concern and said this development strikes at the core of a well-functioning, decent democratic society.
His book also examines issues related to education and the schooling system, which he finds so central to democracy.
“We find an education/schooling crisis in societies throughout the world, not just in relation to what students are learning but also why and how they learn. Education involves much more than delivering information. It centrally concerns helping students, to think critically, to learn to work with others, and to become democratic citizens with, to quote Franklin, ‘an inclination joined with an ability to serve.’”
Harkavy believes higher education is the key institution for reimagining democracy, “for making a powerful contribution to a better community, better society and better world.”
Harkavy said the book would be of interest to policy makers, government officials, community leaders and academics, as well as university administrators.
Reimagining Democratic Societies arose from a 2011 conference at the University of Oslo, co-sponsored by the Council of Europe, International Association of Universities, European Wergeland Centre and U.S. Steering Committee of the International Consortium for Higher Education, Civic Responsibility and Democracy, which Harkavy chairs.
In addition to case studies of colleges and universities around the world that already are working to improve society, the book also suggests “ways forward,” ideas other schools could incorporate to promote a society reimagined. It is the second book that Harkavy has co-edited in this series. All are available through Council of Europe Publishing.