<< The Body Politic

Renewing Civic Education

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

It is an object of vast magnitude that systems of education should be adopted and pursued which may not only diffuse a knowledge of the sciences but may implant in the minds of the American youth the principles of virtue and of liberty and inspire them with just and liberal ideas of government and with an inviolable attachment to their own country. –Noah Webster

In the current issue of Harvard Magazine, two former Harvard deans, Ellen Condliffe Lagemann and Harry Lewis, have an essay adapted from their book What is College For? The Public Purpose of Higher Education. The authors write:

At a time when universities trumpet their place in the world—and within Facebook—but say little about their place in the Republic, […] calls to educate citizens who will sustain the nation have new and vital meaning. It is time to reimagine higher education’s civic mission.

Higher education is now justified almost entirely by economic returns and the concomitant social returns. To be sure, as a government website proclaims, “Education Pays.” But the public purposes of education go beyond aggregated benefits to individuals. Colleges and universities are repositories of culture as well as wellsprings of creativity. They are positioned not only to foster innovation, which is essential to national prosperity, but also to teach the public responsibilities associated with invention and entrepreneurship. They should give students the skills they need for personal success as well as the values, ideals, and civic virtues on which American democracy depends.

The need for civic education is urgent because so many aspects of our civic life have become dysfunctional. “A Republic, if you can keep it,” as Benjamin Franklin described our form of government, will not persist through momentum alone.

Lagemann and Lewis go on to trace the decline of civic education in colleges in the 20th century and what can now be done about it. They suggest that institutions of higher learning adopt a “framework for conversation about the intertwined roles of intellect, morality, and action” in integrating civic learning across disciplines. As they write, “failing to reinvigorate the civic mission of our colleges and universities carries a high price: it will put at risk the well-being of our nation and the world, perhaps not tomorrow but in decades to come. […] With the support and example of higher education, current dismay over political polarization and skepticism about human progress can give way to the civic idealism that has always characterized the American experiment at its best.”

Read the whole thing here.