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The civic mission of higher education

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012

Over at his blog, CIRCLE’s Peter Levine raises some good questions about the role and purpose of civic education, and how it can be used to strengthen democracy and civil society. Before we can judge which civic education initiatives work, Levine writes, “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?”

He continues:

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.


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.

Read Levine’s whole post here–and also be sure to check out Rita Koganzon’s policy brief for the Program in which she discusses some of these same fundamental issues that Levine raises: “Educating for Liberty? The Shortcomings of Contemporary Civic Education Theories.” And for more of Levine’s thoughts on what kind of civic education we should be promoting, read his essay “Education for a Civil Society” in Making Civics Count.