the civic mission of higher education

I am going to Woods Hole, MA, today to speak to the National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on Science, Technology and Law. I have been asked to brief them on civic education at the college level, but I hope to broaden the conversation a bit. This is what I plan to say:

Civic education is one of the ways that higher education serves American democracy and civil society.

Civic education may also have other advantages for students:

  • It can be moral education, making people into better individuals.
  • If civic education involves working together to address social problems, it can enhance the skills that individuals need to succeed in a 21st century workforce.
  • Civic education can be a form of liberal education. A civic framework is a fruitful one for considering texts in the humanities and questions and results in the social and natural sciences.
  • Civic education can give students a sense of purpose and well-being. For example, we found through a rigorous longitudinal study at Tufts that students “flourished” better if they engaged for a sustained period in community service perceived as contributing to social change.

But I will focus on civic education as a way of strengthening democracy and civil society.

American colleges and universities have always claimed to serve the republic, but their idea of what that requires has changed over time and varies among institutions:

  • A typical 19th century college sought to create gentlemen who knew their responsibilities to ascribed groups, such as their community, state, region, and denomination. The college president was usually a minister who taught a mandatory “morals” course.
  • The great 20th century research universities tried to create independent, critical thinkers capable of making informed choices on the basis of information. Intellectual freedom and independence from politics and faith replaced loyalty as the cardinal virtues. The University of Chicago’s reforming president, Robert Maynard Hutchins, said in 1933: “‘education for citizenship’ has no place in the university.” He meant that a modern research university must seek dispassionate academic knowledge.
  • There have been plenty of other models, too: land-grant universities proposing to strengthen democratic communities, Jesuit institutions devoted to social justice, etc.

Let’s say we want to evaluate whether we are doing civic education well enough already–or perhaps we want to develop a plan for doing it better. We need to know what works, and there is a growing body of research on specific practices, from service-learning to inter-group dialogue. I’m happy to answer questions about that literature if people want. But more fundamentally, we must decide what our democracy and civil society need from citizens. Should we be most concerned about information and knowledge? Skills? Civility? Devotion and duty? Independence?

Secular universities tend to be uncomfortable with that discussion because it is openly normative (about values) and controversial. Yet colleges and universities create cultures with powerful norms and values—so pretending that they can avoid that discussion is a mistake. And if they put individual choice and freedom ahead of all other values, that is itself a value-judgment with significant consequences.

I approach this debate with a normative framework that says: citizens are people who deliberate with peers to define public problems and then collaborate with peers to address those problems. In doing so, they honor certain virtues, such as a degree of loyalty to their communities that does not preclude critical thinking and dissent. The government is a tool that they can use to address public problems. It had generic strengths and weaknesses as a tool, and people will disagree about that. The role of the government is one of the things they must deliberate about. So citizenship is not an appropriate relationship with the government; rather, government is a topic for citizens to discuss. Note also that collaboration—actual work—is just as important as deliberation. People who merely talk about public issues are ineffectual and often naïve or misinformed; we learn from acting together. Citizens construct or build public goods: tangible good like parks and schools, and intangible ones like traditions and norms, In doing so, we create civic relationships, which are scarce but renewable assets for civil society. The literature on “social capital” is really about those relationships.

If one adopts this normative framework, then there are positive things to say about today’s America, but we face some alarming declines. Between 1975 and 2005, membership in groups was down by 14%; being interested in public affairs, down by 31%; working on community projects, down by 38%; and attending community meetings, down by 44%. These trends do not reflect changing choices and values alone–they also show evidence of weakening institutions. But it is clear that simply giving people the choice to be active citizens does not yield sufficient levels of citizenship.

Meanwhile, most prevalent and influential groups are no longer general-purpose associations with fairly diverse and active members who care about one another. Those associations have been replaced with single-issue organizations that members pay to pursue particular goals or benefits. And communities have segregated or re-segregated by ideology, race, social class, and culture.

If you share my normative framework, then one question you can ask about modern colleges and universities is whether they produce citizens who are capable of deliberating, collaborating, and building civic relationships. You will not be as interested in whether they know what James Madison thought about the Bill of Rights or who is the vice president of the United States. These are worthy topics but they do not seem essential for effective citizenship. (I defend that position in my chapter in this book.)

If you share my framework, you probably want college students to work together on complex, applied, sustained projects that address social issues and that require deliberation. That seems a promising approach to pedagogy (and it comes in many flavors and forms). It also implies some interesting new approaches to assessment. But you should not be satisfied with improving civic education for college students.

Why not?

First, because 42% of young Americans do not attend college at all, and only about one in four completes a four-year degree. Civic engagement is strongly stratified by education, and BA students are already highly engaged compared to their peers. So by focusing on better pedagogy for undergraduates alone, you risk exacerbating the gaps.

Second, people attend college rather briefly, and are unlikely to remain very different as citizens decades later just because they took some special civics courses as undergraduates.

And third, equating the civic mission of colleges and universities with undergraduate civic education misses our most exciting potential.

Institutions of higher education are anchors in their geographical communities, unable by charter to move and thus committed to where they are. They have resources, ideas, information, and the ability to convene citizens to talk. These assets are becoming relatively more important as certain other civic institutions, such as metropolitan daily newspapers, local political parties, and unions, are collapsing. If colleges and universities step up as civic institutions, they will also improve learning opportunities for their students.

Academia also produces knowledge that all citizens–not just undergraduates–need to be responsible and effective. It is not easy to know how to address complex social problems. That raises difficult questions of fact: what are the problems and what causes them? It raises difficult questions of value: what are good means and good ends and who has the right to decide? And it raises difficult questions of strategy: how can an individual or small group organize an effort or movement that succeeds?

Although academia produces plenty of scattered findings relevant to all these questions, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Value questions are sharply divided from factual questions–into separate departments and disciplines. The social sciences focus on how institutions work, not how individuals can be effective. Themes like deliberation, human agency, collaboration, and public reason are marginal across the disciplines. Civic Studies would be that field or discipline that pulled together relevant methods and insights to inform active and responsible citizens. It would not just be a pedagogy or an educational program but also an advanced research agenda. If we could reorient universities to that agenda, our students would benefit–but so would society as a whole.

[I find that I gave a somewhat similar talk at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta in 2007.]

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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.