Colleges Claim to Teach Civic Education. Some Beg to Differ

BY BRIAN C. MITCHELL

In a thought-provoking essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Derek Bok, president emeritus of Harvard
University, wrote eloquently about the failure of American higher education to provide civic education to college students.

Mr. Bok noted: “Political apathy is not evenly distributed throughout the population.Very conservative and very liberal voters are much more involved in politics than moderates are, thus intensifying the political polarization that is blocking compromise and bipartisan collaboration in Washington.”

Citing the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which evaluates the knowledge of America’s schoolchildren, “more than two-thirds of high school seniors scored below ‘proficient’ in their knowledge of civics and government.” He reports: “Half of all younger graduates did not vote in 2016.”

Does Education for Citizenship Have a Place in Higher Ed?

Mr. Bok suggests that not everyone in higher education sees civic education as a duty, believing, like Robert Maynard Hutchins, that “education for citizenship has no place in the university.” For these individuals, it is not an academic goal but a political one; hence, it is inappropriate for the academy to pursue it.

Yet, Mr. Bok supports working with faculty to develop accepted academic goals like deepening a student’s ability to think critically and reason effectively to develop an informed opinion that is balanced and nuanced. He notes that some student life initiatives, like service-learning programs, can improve a student’s commitment to community activity as can participation in organizations like student government.

In the end, Mr. Bok argues: “What the current situation calls for most of all is a comprehensive effort by every college to do a better job of what most educators claim to be doing already.”

Civics Education Often Divisive Topic on Campus

There is much to commend here, not the least of which is Mr. Bok’s willingness to take on what often quickly becomes a divisive topic on most college campuses. In many respects, what Mr. Bok describes is as much a failure to provide a clear sense of campus direction as a program deficiency.

The American college campus must become a better forum to mediate disagreements, engage students, and encourage consensus. The current national political climate demonstrates the danger in allowing the extremes to dictate to the middle.

  • It begins with finding a way to mix civility – which is different than academic and student freedom – with a respect for difference.
  • It’s about how individual members of a campus community at all levels relate to the community as a whole.
  • It accepts the role of social media but discourages the name-calling, badly-sourced or non-existent research, and breach of manners that earlier generations often knew to avoid.

One of the hardest tasks of senior higher education officials is whether to intervene when the politics are immature, uninformed, or emotion-driven. The best college campuses follow an approach that groups like the National Endowment for the Humanities employed back during the Mapplethorpe flare-ups in the 1980s. Their policy was to provide balanced programming that demonstrated historically that the Agency fully committed to freedom of expression. The NEH and similar cultural groups under attack said effectively: Judge us by our history and the integrity, scholarship, and balance of our programs.

Campus climate sets the tone for the best kind of civic engagement.

Faculty Alone Can’t Self-Correct Lack of Civic Education

It is insufficient also to imagine that the faculty alone can self-correct the lack of civic engagement on campus. Mr. Bok was right on two critical points.

The first is that those colleges and universities with the best-defined sense of self are the most likely to create a culture of civic engagement. They mix academic and student life programming to create a civics foundation.

Second, those whose academic principles are founded on the liberal arts are best equipped to infuse a sense of shared responsibility – the basis for a good civic education – into coursework and the thousand teachable moments that occur outside the classroom.

It may be that what we have lost is a willingness to differentiate our programs by the core values inherent in a liberal arts education.

The simple argument is that the liberal arts teach us to become educated citizens. But, in fact, their reach is far wider and deeper than that. They teach us to think but not how to think. They encourage us to articulate, write, apply quantitative methods, use technology and work in a collaborative setting.

This represents a solid foundation that permits students to make informed judgments, especially in the age of social media.

College and universities must become better and more fearless at articulating their value proposition. It’s not so much that they need to teach civics lessons that their students should long since have been learned.

Rather, colleges and universities must create a dynamic, information-driven, creative and entrepreneurial
culture where to be a part of global society mandates the skills that make civic education vital again.

This article was first published on the blog of The Edvance Foundation.

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