universities and civic education

A 1911 committee of the American Political Science Association recommended that elementary school students should cooperate with local government agencies or community associations to beautify vacant lots, as a way of learning civic skills. They also suggested that high school students should become critics of their own education and be asked to write papers on topics like these:

“What changes have been made in your high school course of study in the last ten years? … What changes would you suggest in the content and methods of teaching the studies you are taking to make them more useful to you?”

In 1906, a distinguished political scientist recommended that boys be sent to live on empty land near town for several summer weeks. The boys would form a self-governing and self-sufficient “republic” of adolescent farmers and thereby learn democracy. These facts come from Hindy Lauer Schachter, “Civic Education: Three Early American Political Science Association Committees and their Relevance for Our Time,” PS Online (1998).

I’m reading this and other articles to prepare for a meeting that CIRCLE has organized along with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the American Political Science Association’s Civic Education Committee. The subject is the civic role of universities. We will be looking at statistical studies of the civic effects of college education. So far, however, I have been reading historical papers.

The received wisdom is that American colleges were primarily dedicated to moral and civic education until the early years of the 20th century. As the anecdotes in Schachter’s article reveal, many leading academics favored a highly experiential approach to civic education–both for k-12 students and for undergraduates. However, under the influence of German research universities, the leading American institutions gradually devoted themselves to objective, scientific research and specialized professional training. A 1914 APSA Committee recommended that citizens “learn humility in the face of expertise.” As universities focused on the education of experts, they lost their moral and civic focus (for better or worse). They ceased recommending or implementing the kind of experiential civic education described above.

This is now a fairly standard story. Some of the best recent scholarship complicates it, noting, for example, that there was a powerful civic vision embodied in the new research universities. See William Talcott’s “Modern Universities, Absent Citizenship,” which is CIRCLE Working Paper # 39 (pdf).

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