Changing the Story About Higher Ed’s Public Purposes and Work: Land-Grants, Liberty, and the Little Country Theater

Scott Peters, associate professor, Department of Education, Cornell University,  examines the stories we tell about the history of higher education, using strategies of the humanities and the qualitative social sciences to illuminate competing accounts of the public mission of American land grant colleges. Specifically, he uncovers the historical relationship between culture and agriculture, building a bridge from Imagining America’s usual arena of the arts, humanities, and design to quite different kinds of work that are equally concerned with the layered meanings of place. His essay shows how the public mission of our colleges and universities has been—and is still being—negotiated through much-debated heroic, tragic, and prophetic meta-narratives. And as a leader of the movement for community engagement, he models precisely the kind of critical self-reflection and “public-regarding” practice that he hopes to find in the work of his own colleagues. Speaking directly to the producers of knowledge and culture who aim to become civic professionals, he offers a pragmatic strategy for hope.