A Defense of Higher Education and its Civic Mission

I gave a plenary address by this title at last week’s American Democracy Project/The Democracy Commitment conference in Denver. I repeated a lot of what I had said in a North Carolina speech in February, but I updated and reframed that talk somewhat. Also, the questions from the floor were very good. The audio is here, and it includes the Q&A. My written text follows below the fold.

I am excited and honored to be here at the American Democracy Project & The Democracy Commitment National Meeting.

I happen to be one of many people in the room who doesn’t actually work at a state college or university. Why are people like me here?

Because this has turned into one of the most important gatherings of the broader movement for civic renewal in America.

It is important because of the dedicated and talented people in the room and the strength of your network.

It is important because of the students you serve and their demographics. If we can engage them, American democracy will be OK for the next generation and beyond. If not, I am not so sure.

And this network is important because of what George [Mehaffy] said yesterday about place, about place as our competitive advantage.

We live at a time of easy exit.

Things aren’t going well for your company? Move it somewhere else.

Not getting a good return on your investment? Move your money.

Don’t like the opinions of the people around you? Find a community where virtually everyone agrees with you.

Don’t like Democrats? Watch FOX News.

Don’t like Republicans? Watch MSNBC.

Don’t like people much at all? There are plenty of ways to detach from all of them.

But ADP and TDC campuses are stuck, rooted locally, compelled to engage. That is true of everyone in public higher education, but this conference convenes people who see their rootedness as a virtue or a competitive advantage. We want to help make our places better.

Unfortunately, we are working in an atmosphere of crisis.

That is such a cliché. It is so easy to stand behind a podium and try to grab people’s attention with the “c” word. You’ve probably heard “crisis” so many times that you have crisis fatigue and will now tune me out. It’s a cliché because we can always say it. We’re always in crisis.

Yet this does seem a hard and unsettled time when the status quo simply will not hold.

Just for example, the governors of Florida, Wisconsin, and North Carolina are proposing to direct state funds to “high demand” fields, majors that lead directly to jobs.

Gov. Walker of Wisconsin says he will tie state funding to “performance,” and performance “means not only degrees, but are young people getting degrees in jobs that are open and needed today, not just the jobs that universities want to give us …”

North Carolina Gov. McCrory was on Bill Bennett’s radio show in January. Bennett asked “How many PhDs in philosophy do I need to subsidize?” (This was a rhetorical question. The answer was presumably zero.)  The governor replied, “You and I agree.” His proposal is to charge more tuition for majors that do not lead directly to jobs. Note that Bennett himself holds a philosophy PhD from a state university.

I think we who believe in the liberal arts and the civic mission of higher education should not be offended by this kind of argument. We should not be defensive about it. We should not deny the right of a legitimately elected public official to decide how to allocate the people’s money. It’s not our money by birthright. The faculty of a university is not a superior body to the state legislature. We charge a lot of money for tuition and citizens are entitled to ask what we produce for it.

But we can proudly and forthrightly make the case for both the civic mission of the university and the liberal arts and openly tell our fellow citizens that they should support those things.

By the way, the two are inextricably linked because the purpose of the liberal arts is to prepare people for responsible citizenship, and the best forms of civic engagement are intellectually challenging; they are the liberal arts in action, or the liberal arts learned and tested experientially.

The good news is that civic education at the college level makes people into better workers; civic engagement promotes employment; and civic engagement is a path to solving other serious public problems, not just unemployment.

I think those are all valid points, but they depend on pretty demanding definitions of “civic education” and “civic engagement.” Community service does not necessarily pay off in the ways I am talking about. The empirical evidence doesn’t show that, and there really isn’t a reason to believe that community service would solve a public crisis like unemployment. What we need is not service per se (although sometimes service can contribute) but rather a strong infrastructure of civic institutions and networks in our communities that can manage three essential tasks:

One task is deliberation: bringing people from different perspectives and walks of life together to share ideas, to learn from one another, to invent ideas, to make themselves accountable to each other for their beliefs and their actions.

Another task is collaboration, or working together. People who merely talk lack sufficient knowledge and experience to add much insight to the conversation; and talk alone rarely improves the world. Deliberation is valuable when it is connected to work—when citizens bring their experience of making things into their discussions, and when they take ideas and values from deliberation back into their work. Work is especially valuable when it it is collaborative, when people make things of public value together.

The third task involves relationships. Citizens want and need civic relationships with other people. These are not friendships, or financial partnerships, or romantic relationships—they fill a different need. They are not exclusive—in fact, you should have civic relationships with many people. But they are not devoid of emotion either; they are marked by a degree of loyalty, trust, and hope. Working and talking with fellow citizens builds and strengthens civic relationships, which are scarce but renewable sources of energy and power.

A combination of deliberation, collaboration, and civic relationships is the core of citizenship. If we had much more of this kind of civic engagement, we could address our nation’s most serious problems. Colleges and universities can be part of the solution if they recall their civic mission and participate in deliberation, collaboration, and relationship-building.

Here’s a statistical finding that you should like if you are involved with community engagement. My colleagues and I have found that when more residents were engaged in civic work, unemployment rose less badly in counties, cities, and states during and after the Great Recession of 2008. We looked into demographic factors, the role of the oil and gas industries, housing-price inflation, mobility, and many other factors, but civic engagement emerged as a stronger predictor of communities’ resilience against unemployment. The two most important elements of civic engagement were the density of associations in each community that engaged local citizens, and the degree to which residents reported having social relationships with other people nearby.

Previous studies suggest possible explanations. Maybe participating in civic affairs teaches skills that are also useful in the job market. After all, so-called “soft skills” like building consensus and solving problems in groups, are increasingly valuable in the 21st century workplace, and you can learn them by participating as a citizen.

Young people also gain the motivation to stick with school and college and to pursue challenging academic work when they see it as addressing serious problems in their communities. We know that high school students who perform required service in courses are much more likely to graduate even when we adjust for demographics. According to our own rigorous longitudinal data, Tufts students who become involved in sustained and demanding civic work tend to become flourish better as students; they report better mental health and success.

Or maybe civic engagement encourages people to trust one another so that they are more likely to undertake business partnerships. People who belong to civic groups do exhibit high trust, and trust is known to predict economic success.

Or maybe a thriving civil society strengthens citizens’ affection and loyalty to their communities so that they choose to spend and invest locally.

Or maybe when you have a strong set of independent organizations, they hold governments accountable and improve their performance, cutting waste and corruption.

There is evidence for all these explanations. But I think Sean Safford offers the most persuasive account by looking closely at Youngstown, OH and Allentown, PA. [Why the Garden Club Couldn’t Save Youngstown, Harvard University Press, 2009.] These two old manufacturing cities were economically and demographically similar when the crises of global competition and automation hit American manufacturing in the 1970s. Youngstown entered a downward spiral and now has a median household income of $25,000 and a median home value of $52,000. Meanwhile, Allentown has turned into a successful post-industrial economic center with a median household income more than one third higher than in Youngstown, homes worth almost three times more, just one third as many murders per capita, and a substantially higher life expectancy. (These are my statistics, not Safford’s.)

Safford traces the starkly different outcomes to the civic infrastructure of the two cities. In their heyday as manufacturing centers, both had economic networks dominated by the interlocking boards of their local businesses. And both had social networks composed of private clubs. But only Allentown really had a separate, robust civic network. Safford defines “civic organizations [as] those for which the primary goal is to improve the community in some way.”  In Allentown, the universities’ boards and the Boy Scouts were among the most prominent civic groups. Youngstown also had civic organizations, but not a network of overlapping civic boards. When the economic crisis killed Youngstown’s businesses and left the local elite competing for scarce financial resources, they had no place to gather, plan, and collaborate. But in Allentown, local leaders talked and cooperated in their overlapping civic organizations.

Their discussions launched specific new initiatives that incubated high-tech businesses. They also developed new overall strategies. The business elite, organized as a civic cadre through the Lehigh Valley Partnership, converged on a similar development strategy as the grassroots activist groups, organized as the Community Action Coalition. Meanwhile, Lehigh University reoriented itself as a civic hub that connected to both activists and businesses.The board of the University turned out to be a key location for regional leaders to meet and develop relationships.

Importantly, it was not the number of associations per capita that mattered. Rather, organizations were configured into a network that encouraged deliberation and collaboration in Allentown, but not in Youngstown. What matters seems to be the strength of the local network that permits discussion, collaboration, and relationship-building.

By the way, the important forms of civic engagement were directly connected to work. People came to board meetings an Lehigh wearing their official job titles on their nametags. They didn’t go away to volunteer, but to direct their organizations in public-spirited ways. If we think of civic engagement as free, after-hours, voluntary activities like unpaid service and voting, it’s not clear why it should be strongly linked to economic success. So we should remember that civic engagement is work and work is civic engagement.

I’ve talked about civic solutions to an economic issue, because that’s so high on the states’ agenda, and this is an AASCU meeting. We could consider about many other issues as well, from incarceration to global warming. Let me mention one other that’s very pressing: gun violence.

Bursting into a school to kill children and teachers is evil. It is also the antithesis of civil society and threatens the trust and peace that are necessary for civic life. A true solution is not easy to envision. None of the reforms that has a significant chance of enactment would reliably prevent such tragedies, even if legislation might help at the margins. Banning assault weapons would be constitutional, in my opinion, and it might prevent some violence, but it would hardly block all school shootings. More access to counseling might help some kids, but apparently no impressive prevention strategy is available today for suicidal teenagers.

A real solution would require action on many fronts, by many people. Addressing a brutal threat together is civic work that can help repair the torn fabric.

We might start by deliberating as citizens about the issues that Newtown has put on the national agenda. By definition, a deliberation is open to all people and all views. Thus a deliberative response would welcome both gun opponents and gun supporters. It would not aim at perfect consensus but might generate mutual trust, good new ideas, and perhaps enough political will to enact them.

The Deliberative Democracy Consortium and the National School Public Relations Association have “developed a guide for discussion and action on school safety and other issues raised by the events in Newtown.” The guide can be downloaded from the DDC’s resources page. It provides excellent advice about how to organize a deliberation based in a school and suggests four contrasting positions for citizens to discuss. (Each one comes with some supporting arguments and evidence.) They are: “strengthen school security procedures,” “take a closer look at how school systems deal with mental health issues,” “focus on guns, gun safety, and gun violence,” and “focus on approaches that address the emotional development of young people.”

Note that “naming and framing” an issue like this is difficult and important work. Kevin Drum wrote a post entitled, “If You Want to Regulate Guns, Talk About Guns. Period.” The President, however, tried to broaden the topic to children’s safety (which is much worse in inner-city neighborhoods than in suburban schools, but for different reasons). Even though Drum and Obama are on the same general side politically, they named this issue differently. There is no single correct name, but the DDC’s guide would give many people points of entry.

In addition to deliberation, we might think of civic work to prevent gun violence.

As I noted already, Allentown has much better social outcomes than Youngstown, including lower crime and longer lives, and the reason seems to be the better civic network in Allentown that allows people and groups to plan and work together on public issues.

In a powerful new book on Chicago neighborhoods, the sociologist Robert Sampson finds that a strong organizational infrastructure boosts a community’s capacity for collective civic action, which has substantial benefits for the neighborhood’s safety and health.

The New York Times‘ Benedict Carey recently used Sampson’s analysis to write a good article about the Chatham neighborhood in Chicago. Racially segregated, economically challenged, and threatened by occasional random violence from outside the community, Chatham still has so much collective efficacy that it can usually hold crime at bay. Carey writes, “Chatham has more than a hundred block groups, citizen volunteers who monitor the tidiness of neighborhood lawns, garbage, and noise, as well as organize events.” When an off-duty Chicago police officer, Iraq War veteran, and civic leader named Thomas Wortham IV was shot to death outside of his parents’ house, “residents of Chatham didn’t wait long to act.” They arranged public events that were intended to reinforce collective efficacy and organized crime watches and other practical efforts to suppress crime. They were so effective that essentially no crimes were reported in the vicinity for months after Officer Wortham’s tragic murder. (This example comes straight from Sampson’s book but is retold in the Times.)

How to help more American communities become like Chatham is not an easy question, but it could mean making policies more favorable to civic involvement, changing the culture of local governments and other formal institutions to promote active citizenship, and possibly funding the kinds of local nonprofits that, according to Sampson and others, boost collective efficacy.

For colleges and universities, it would mean teaching our own students the skills and arts of citizenship that lead to robust communities. Most of us faculty and staff—including me—can use ongoing lessons in those arts and skills as well.

It would also mean weaving our own institutions into the civic fabric of communities (from small towns to whole states). Like the Lehigh University boardroom, but writ large, colleges and universities need to be places where people come together to solve problems.

I have tried to make the case that civic education is not an alternative to educating people for good jobs—it is an essential means to address unemployment–and also gun violence and a host of other really serious issues. These problems have in common that they could not be solved by any simple and available policy reform. They will take lots of people’s ideas, labor, and relationships to address.

I haven’t gone deeply into the relationships between civic education and the liberal arts. We could explore interesting and important tensions, because the liberal arts disciplines do maintain a worthy ethic of detachment, reflection, and resistance to instrumental outcomes.

Yet civic education, civic engagement, and the liberal arts are inextricably connected.

In order to be a good citizen, you need values—not just any values, but deeply reflective values that you have worked out in dialogue with other people, both living and dead, through reading and the arts and discussion and direct experience.

To be a good citizen, you must also understand facts: what is happening, what are the trends, what works, who benefits? You can get that information and—more importantly—the insight and understanding you need from books from and other media, from discussions, and (again) from experience.

And to be a good citizen, you need strategies. You must understand how to get from A to B, not alone, but with other people. Having a vision of the ideal condition of your community is useless unless you know how to move toward it. There’s a great scene in the movie Lincoln where the president tells Thaddeus Stevens:

“A compass, I learnt when I was surveying, it’ll—it’ll point you True North from where you’re standing, but it’s got no advice about the swamps and deserts and chasms that you’ll encounter along the way. If in pursuit of your destination you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp, what’s the use of knowing True North?”

Again, you can learn strategies in the library and in the classroom, but working in a community is the main place, I think, where we learn it.

The liberal arts are the arts of citizenship. They are incomplete unless they teach the values, facts, and strategies that people need to improve their world. On the whole, I am not sure we teach or study those things very well. The values discussions in a humanities seminar are disconnected from the factual data in a social science classroom. The strategic (or at least tactical) questions facing a group that works in the community seem remote from both social science and values.

So we can’t just be satisfied with offering community service or service-learning opportunities. We need to think about deeper restructuring of scholarship and teaching so that it provides more of what citizens need: values, facts, and strategies that they can use to make the world better. Some of that teaching and research should be experiential and community-based, but I think almost as important is to reorient our reading and writing and classroom discussions so that they are more integrated and relevant to citizens’ problems.

I have covered a lot of ground, so let me try to summarize before I wind up and invite your thoughts.

Higher education is under pressure to prove its worth. We charge a lot. Our faculty sometimes seem out of step with taxpayers and lawmakers (or vice-versa—but either way, there is a gap). Only about one in four of our young people is really getting the traditional four-year college experience while they’re still under 25 years old. So how does all this benefit the broader society?

The answer is not to narrow the curriculum to the kinds of programs that teach concrete job skills. Economists tell us that the market value of concrete skills is actually falling, while the market value of “people skills” is rising. Some “people skills” may be elementary or even a bit disturbing, like always smiling at customers even if they are annoying. But some people skills are really civic skills, like the ability to define and address problems ethically, with other people.

Individuals who engage in their communities do better. They learn job skills, they make connections, and they are more likely to flourish psychologically. In our own research, we find these personal benefits from service programs, but only when they have duration and intensity (when students do serious work over a long time), when there is a strong tie to academic or intellectual work, and when students see themselves as contributing to something big: not just a class but something like the renewal of a community. Service without duration, intensity, connection to community, and a large sense of purpose does not seem to benefit students.

Going beyond the individual students, we know that communities that have strong civic infrastructures can solve problems—including violence and acute or chronic unemployment—better than other communities. By the way, that’s a finding that should please conservatives, because it reinforces the importance of civil society and voluntary action rather than the state.

But civic infrastructure can be built, and colleges can play a role. We can directly participate, as when Lehigh University became a central node in the civic network of Allentown, PA. We can assist other parts of the civic infrastructure—k-12 schools whose teachers we prepare, churches whose pastors we educate, local government agencies that are our partners. We can teach our students, faculty, and staff to contribute to the civic infrastructure. And we can run specific programs, whether they are deliberations on gun violence or research projects on the history of migration to Denver.

These issues are intellectually challenging and central to the liberal arts. In fact, one reason to focus on civic issues is that it can enliven the scholarly disciplines. Literary critics are asking whether the interpretation of texts can make readers into better citizens. Public health scientists say that cutting-edge research requires partnerships between scientists and community-based groups. And all the social sciences contribute research on how ordinary people address shared problems.

There is definitely a role for practice—for community partnerships and community service programs. Students and faculty benefit from crossing boundaries, taking risks, addressing real problems, and working with people from different walks of life. We can’t let this shrink into community service. Picking up trash in the local park doesn’t achieve any of the things I have been talking about. We and our students are worthy of much more challenging and interesting kinds of experiences than that.

Although it was not much noted, the President chose to end his last four most significant speeches with a section about citizenship. I am talking about his acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention, his victory speech on election night, his Second Inaugural, and then the State of the Union. Each time, the President chose to end with a call to citizenship. T the State of the Union, he said, “We are citizens.  It’s a word that doesn’t just describe our nationality or legal status.  It describes the way we’re made.  …  It remains the task of us all, as citizens of these United States, to be the authors of the next great chapter in our American story.”

Neither the President nor his party has the answers about how to accomplish that. In fact, his Administration has really done very little to support civic engagement in higher education, and I don’t quote him to endorse him or to take his side. But he is right about his conclusion–our work is to write the next great chapter of this state and the nation.


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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.