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MAY 2012

Lucy Mule, Education & Child Study
Phil Peake, Psychology

Philosophers from Plato to John Dewey have considered the value of community engagement in the work of intellectuals. For both men, immersion in community was a necessary component of an ideal education; for Dewey, it was the cornerstone of all academic work. If a democracy was to function intelligently, Dewey wrote, schools and communities would need to become merged spaces where knowledge moves back and forth in a constant flow of thought and application.

The Kahn Liberal Arts Institute and the Center for Community Collaboration invite faculty to participate in a short-term project to explore the practical and ethical complexities of community engagement for institutions devoted to teaching and research.

Community-engaged work manifests itself in multiple ways across disciplines in higher education today, from learning modules about the effects of lead paint on humans, to studies of water systems in the natural world, to debates on theories of how to create meaningful social change, to research on social change initiatives alongside community partners. Recent philosophical shifts at our own institution and at liberal arts colleges around the country have sanctioned and encouraged new forms of community partnerships, redefining the traditional boundaries between schools and neighborhoods.

This re-conceptualization has potentially profound consequences for both entities. Certainly, the nature of teaching will change as cities and towns are perceived as direct extensions of the classroom and valuable sites for student research and work. Academic research will also change as colleges, universities, and learned societies acknowledge and accept new kinds of understandings drawn from direct involvement with community organizations, political entities and groups outside the traditional sphere of the academy.

All of this shifting ideological activity opens the way for big questions. Some are philosophical. What does "community" mean? What does "engagement" mean? What does "partnership" mean? Some questions are ethical. Who benefits and who (if anyone) stands to lose when schools partner with communities? Who is using whom? Other questions are economic. What are the cost/benefits to community collaboration? Have they been measured and by whom? Still others are practical. What is the real value of community engagement? What supports or inhibits it? And, of course, some are pedagogical. How do community-focused pedagogies influence the liberal arts educational mission? Should work in our classrooms have "real world" effects? Is immersion in the community—as Plato might suggest—a potentially corrupting, but critical step towards becoming a "philosopher king"?

This short-term Kahn Institute project seeks faculty from across the College who are interested in exploring these issues and arguing the pros and cons of community engagement. Participants are encouraged to share their experiences as researchers and/or teachers who have straddled the spaces between higher education and the community, but no previous community involvement is required. Our aim is less to report on our specific research, than it is to have an open-ended discussion around the broader ideas that undergird that research. A second goal will be to explore the possibility for a yearlong Kahn and/or an edited book project that would consider this complex and important topic from a range of disciplinary and ideological perspectives.


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