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In the Birthplace of Populism

Harry Boyte, co-director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, wrote this post from College Station, Texas.

Re-posted with permission from the By the People CDC blog.

“Always say ‘Howdy,’” the student at the hotel reception desk told me. “And ask to see the ‘Aggie ring.’”

I am at Texas A&M University, where I’ve been invited to speak as part of the school’s Social Justice Week. I’ve never seen a university with which students identify as strongly–from the Aggie ring, earned after one year and inaugurated with a pitcher of beer (for those who imbibe), to the hand signs and calls that each class (freshman, sophomore, junior, senior) makes differently, to football fans who stand throughout games.

Yesterday, student leaders described these and other traditions to me. An African American student, a leader in the Alternative Spring Break, said she visited other campuses, “but nowhere else did I feel so welcomed, or seen as an individual.”

Texas A&M is a land grant university, part of the expansion of higher education under the 1862 Morrill Act which established colleges and universities for poor and rural young people. It was explicitly part of the “common school movement,” inspired by other things that we all share and are responsible for (water, air, in some cases land, and now public education, community centers, and the Internet).

In preparation for my speech last night, “What Does It Mean to be an Aggie in the 21st Century?,” I did research on the commons tradition in Texas, which is remarkable. Grazing lands, for instance, were not private until recently. The “cowboy commons” was how the West was settled, with intricate codes of honor and custom developed to protect the commons and manage herds. East Texas, where Texas A&M is located, was the birthplace of the Farmers Alliances, an enormous movement of farm cooperatives organized by both black and white farmers that was the foundation of American Populism in the latter decades of the 19th century. The town of Lampasas, to the West, was the first meeting place of the Alliance. Houston County, to the East, was where the Colored Farmers Alliance was born. (To read more, visit

The Aggies I’ve talked to seem to understand that this energizing, inspiring commonwealth tradition–and its values like honor, integrity, and service–are under siege in modern consumer society. At the end of my talk last night, I issued a challenge to Texas A&M University to take leadership in turning around the privatization of the commons. One young Latino cadet, known among his professors for his integrity, said “Thank you, sir. I have my marching orders.”

What we’re planning to listen to:

Agents and Architects of Democracy: An Empowering Heritage Webinar

Wednesday, February 24, 2010 3 p.m. – 4 p.m. Eastern

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