I think most of us have a tendency to take for granted the democratic way of life. We are quick to praise it, and we consider it our "right." If pressed to define it, we usually describe a system of representative government in which we, the citizens, govern ourselves through an elective system of representation. However, as we know, there are democracies and then . . . there are democracies. Why are some democracies stronger or healthier than others? Robert D. Putnam, Director of the Center for International Affairs at Harvard University, argues (in "Bowling Alone," AAHE Bulletin, September 1995) that the degree and strength of individual civic involvement is a strong predictor of the relative success or failure of democracy.
Why am I writing about democracy? Because I am struck by the remarkable parallels that can be drawn between the health of a democracy and that of our profession. Countries are constantly worried about threats from outside invasion; so are we in our profession, perhaps more so today than in earlier times. In education and the arts, we are threatened by dwindling sources of financial support, lack of understanding from "upper" administration, and a multitude of both perceived and real disturbances from outside that make it difficult to do what we do best: teach, write, perform, compose, conduct research, or simply think.
However, all outside threats pale in comparison to the dangers of internal indifference and apathy. To be sure, when we allow natural setbacks, misunderstandings, or disappointments to color our belief in the value of our profession, our disaffection incapacitates us and undermines both our individual and collective power.
In my opinion, true apathy is rare in academia, since that term presumes lack of interest, emotion, or passion. Most of us have plenty of opinions to air, and we want those opinions given proper consideration, be that within or outside of our departments. The problem lies in the fact that we frequently fall prey to unproductive ways of voicing our concerns. Have we not all experienced the hostility, dissociation, and polarization that follow heated arguments within our departments?. . . with the media when they undervalue the arts? . . . with those who hold the purse strings of our programs? It is easy to get involved in a verbal barrage when we feel we are right and others are wrong, but such posturing rarely produces positive results. When winning an argument is the only goal, we become mired in swamps of ill will, since wherever there are winners there are also losers. Ironically, this path frequently leads to more misunderstandings, increased cynicism.
Open dialogue is not an extinct species—it is an art that is not practiced with the dedication it deserves. Open exchanges of ideas carve the only available paths to understanding. Understanding, in turn, is the key to seeking solutions. This is not to suggest that we need to divorce ourselves from our passions and ideas, but instead, that while expressing them, we need to acknowledge those of others. It is healthy to get involved in frequent and regular dialogue with others in any group, for this is the most effective way to find a common ground and develop mutual trust. An additional bonus can be derived, for such regular interaction makes people accountable for their views.
Involvement and dialogue are the two key elements in strong and healthy democracies. They are also the key to the health of music, the arts, and higher education.