why colleges should embrace a civic mission

I’m traveling today to Oglethorpe University in Martin Luther King’s city of Atlanta. Oglethorpe has begun a major initiative to incorporate service and civic engagement into the whole experience of its students. I’m going to moderate a day of discussion for the faculty. I won’t talk much: I want to listen and help the professors to develop their own ideas. However, I have promised a brief opening presentation about why colleges and universities should embrace their civic missions. My outline follows:

In the 19th century, citizenship and higher education went together. The good citizen, like the good college graduate, knew his or her duty and did it.

In politics, for example, voting was a public act. You voted for your party?s candidate, and your neighbors watched you do it. Most people were brought up within a party and were expected to stay loyal to it. The parties were defined by ascribed identities that were difficult for individuals to escape: class, race, religion, and region.

Newspapers routinely mixed editorializing with factual reporting, and each one aimed at a specific identity group. They advocated fiercely.

In colleges and universities, there was little choice among courses. Most college presidents were clergymen; teaching involved lots of moral exhortation. Moral development was a central function of the institution. Student bodies were homogeneous–often from the same denomination, race, and community. Oglethorpe University had a rather typical founding purpose: to train young men of Georgia to be ministers for the Presbyterian Church.

A new model of citizenship arose in the 20th century, and a new form of college and university developed to embody it. Now the good citizen was an independent, informed maker of free choices.

In politics, voting became a private act (thanks to the secret ballot). Because voting for a party is a crude way to choose one’s political preferences, there were efforts to disaggregate the choice. Party-line voting was discouraged; citizens were supposed to choose individual candidates. The referendum, initiative, and recall were launched.

The best newspapers now aspired to neutrality and separated fact from opinion. Their role was to inform the private reader who would then make choices.

Higher education changed accordingly. Students were given choices among courses and majors. Professors won autonomy and academic freedom. Knowledge and critical thinking became the chief educational goals. Graduates were supposed to choose their beliefs, their political preferences, and their social roles based on information. Indoctrination was seen as a fault, and as a result there was much less moral exhortation.

This model reached its apogee soon after World War II. The Oglethorpe Idea (launched in 1944) was unusual in that it put an emphasis on “citizenship.” More typical was a statement by the University of Chicago’s president, Robert Hutchins, in 1933: “‘education for citizenship’ has no place in the university.” Hutchins led a modern research university devoted to dispassionate academic study.

This ideal came under attack after the War:

  • Conservatives noted that the alleged neutrality of the modern university was misleading, because the curriculum and ethos were pervasively secular. (See William Buckley, God and Man at Yale, 1951).
  • Liberals and leftists noted that the supposedly independent and neutral university won contracts from the Defense Department and prepared its graduates to run corporate America. It was also the gateway to the middle class, yet its admissions decisions were hardly neutral.
  • Others (regardless of ideology) argued that a university devoted to choice lacked any central purpose. It had become a hollow shell without a meaningful set of values that could orient young people.
  • Meanwhile, there were gradual but substantial declines in the actual proportion of Americans who were participating in public life. Presented with a free choice among civic or political groups and causes, many chose not to engage at all. Between 1975 and 2005, the decline was 14% for belonging to at least one group, 31% for being interested in public affairs, 38% for working on community projects, 38% for regularly reading the newspaper, and 44% for attending community meetings.

    Clearly, higher education did not deserve all the blame for this disengagemrnt. (Indeed, people without college degrees were the most likely to drop out of public life.) But higher education wasn’t doing enough to help–to develop interests, skills, and habits of participation.

    Colleges and universities also had another good reason to worry about civic engagement. They were now trying to attract and retain a broader range of students, many of whom were not comfortable or motivated in institutions devoted only to academic knowledge and critical thinking. These students needed to see applications and purposes for what they were learning.

    Therefore, a new set of teaching practices have developed that go beyond both the 19th and the 20th century university. These practices include service-learning, community-based research, living/learning communities, and exercises in public deliberation.

    At their best, these forms of education avoid indoctrination and mere moral exhortation. They prize and teach critical thinking and independence. Nevertheless, they deliberately develop skills, habits, and values that will connect graduates to public life. In short, they don’t tell students what to think about controversial issues, but they do train them to think, to care, and to act on public matters.

    Some controversies and challenges to consider:

  • Can civic education avoid indoctrination? [Stanley Fish says no: “Universities could engage in moral and civic education only by deciding in advance which of the competing views of morality and citizenship is the right one, and then devoting academic resources and energy to the task of realizing it. But that task would deform (by replacing) the true task of academic work: the search for truth and the dissemination of it through teaching.”]
  • Are colleges and universities competent to develop character, especially if such education requires them to work with non-academic institutions and communities?
  • Is it fair to put a university’s resources into service or civic education, when students have paid their tuition and alumni have given money on the understanding that the institution is devoted to academic study?