In a recent thought-provoking essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Derk 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 NEH 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.
Higher Ed Must Be Fearless in Articulating Its Value Proposition
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.
One of the most unfortunate results of the overheated political rhetoric that consumed the presidential election, transition, and early days of the Trump presidency has been the unwillingness of either side to see the opportunity for reasoned intellectual debate with those with whom they disagree and perhaps don’t even respect.
Protesters Force Speaker from Middlebury College Campus
The most recent example took place last week at Middlebury College where conservative author and activist, Charles Murray, faced a hostile crowd that forced his speech to be relocated to another site. According to the New York Times, “When Mr. Murray rose to speak, he was shouted down by most of the more than 400 students packed into the room…. Many turned their backs to him and chanted slogans like ‘racist, sexist, anti-gay, Charles Murray go away!’”
Police were able to clear the crowd after considerable effort. A professor accompanying Mr. Murray was injured by protestors as she was escorting him from campus.
Bill Burger, Middlebury’s vice president for communications and marketing, reported that they were “physically and violently confronted by a group of protestors [who] violently set upon the car, rocking it, pounding on it, jumping on and trying to prevent it from leaving campus.”
Charles Murray co-authored The Bell Curve in which he held that there are biological differences in intelligence between racial groups. Murray’s opponents argued effectively that this was bad science and widely discredited. They reasoned that Middlebury’s campus should not host a discussion on topics where one side’s opinion was intellectually unsound and rhetorically weak, only further reinforcing some of the worst biases in American social and cultural history.
A New Litmus Test for “Informed Discussion”?
In doing so, Middlebury’s protestors established a litmus test for informed discussion. Their actions played into the hands of their opponents – especially on a political level – who use their own litmus test to brand debate on college campuses as narrowly ideological, heavily biased, and part of a larger propaganda effort to indoctrinate American students in left-leaning policies and positions.
On one level, Americans can admire the passion that has brought us to the positions that Americans hold on either extreme.
On the other hand, there is a case to be made for more seasoning, maturity, and balance in how America’s colleges and universities foster and encourage political debate about science or any issue on their campuses.
Further, there is real danger in playing out the cards in the wrong sequence.
America’s colleges and universities must remain the place where we nurture the best ideas to protect, incubate and develop new ones.
Some fresh ideas will not stand competing research or the test of time. But it shouldn’t stop anyone from expressing them, providing that the expression is civil.
Colleges Must Practice What They Preach About Tolerance
American higher education must avoid being stamped by their detractors as the intolerant home of limited free speech whose campus communities fail to practice what they preach about tolerance. Why hand the opposite extreme a political weapon with which they will bludgeon you, whether you identify on the left or right politically? Either higher education advocates tolerance or it does not.
Tipping Point in Intellectual Debate
In these days of growing intolerance, we have reached a tipping point in intellectual debate. The U.S. college campus symbolizes what we cherish most about global ideals that transcend even American core values (to the extent that these exist).
American higher education cannot lose its lead as the home of creative inquiry, even when the ideas occasionally have little merit in the eyes of many.
The next months are likely to produce even more heated rhetoric and bigger street protests across college campuses and throughout the country on a variety of proposals that illuminate this growing spirit of intolerance. For those in higher education, demonstrations like the one at Middlebury weaken the moral higher ground that will be necessary to hold positions that will resonate with the American public. At the very least, the guiding spirit must be Dr. King’s non-violent approach to promote an activist agenda.
Upholding Tolerance Requires Leadership
Standing up for tolerance will also require courageous leadership. In this regard, there was a very hopeful moment that emerged from Middlebury’s uproar. Laurie L. Patton, Middlebury’s president, issued a strong moral statement, demonstrating the value of a president who has the courage and maturity to lead a campus.
“Last night we failed to live up to our core values. But I remain hopeful,” wrote Patton. “Last evening, several students, faculty, and staff representing a large spectrum of political perspectives remained in Wilson Hall to discuss the events and to talk about building bridges. Their ability to reach across differences in a rigorous but respectful way was a stark contrast to the events that preceded it. I firmly believe these are the Middlebury values that we have lived so long and that we must strive to embody in the future.”
Teachable moments about tolerance come to us in numerous ways. Let’s hope that the dialogue occurs, and a lesson, long since learned at Middlebury, is now remembered.