<< The Body Politic

Higher education, liberal arts, and civic education

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013

Elon UniversityLast week, Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, spoke to a meeting of 17 college presidents and other representatives of higher education about the civic mission of the university. As more and more emphasis is being placed on higher education as a path to employment, Levine noted, the liberal arts and the civic mission of higher education are being placed on the sideline. But this would be a mistake, he argues, and supporters of these programs “can proudly and forthrightly make the case for both the civic mission of the university and the liberal arts and openly tell our fellow citizens that they should support those things.”

Levine continues:

[Liberal arts and civic education are] inextricably linked because the purpose of the liberal arts is to prepare people for responsible citizenship, and the best forms of civic engagement are intellectually challenging; they are the liberal arts in action, or the liberal arts learned and tested experientially.

The good news is that civic education at the college level makes people into better workers; civic engagement promotes employment; and civic engagement is a path to solving other serious public problems, not just unemployment.

I think those are all valid points, but they depend on pretty demanding definitions of “civic education” and “civic engagement.” Community service does not necessarily pay off in the ways I am talking about. The empirical evidence doesn’t show that, and there really isn’t a reason to believe that community service would solve a public crisis like unemployment. What we need is not service per se (although sometimes service can contribute) but rather a strong infrastructure of civic institutions and networks in our communities that can manage three essential tasks:

One task is deliberation: bringing people from different perspectives and walks of life together to share ideas, to learn from one another, to invent ideas, to make themselves accountable to each other for their beliefs and their actions.

Another task is collaboration, or working together. People who merely talk lack sufficient knowledge and experience to add much insight to the conversation; and talk alone rarely improves the world. Deliberation is valuable when it is connected to work—when citizens bring their experience of making things into their discussions, and when they take ideas and values from deliberation back into their work. Work is especially valuable when it it is collaborative, when people make things of public value together.

The third task involves relationships. Citizens want and need civic relationships with other people. These are not friendships, or financial partnerships, or romantic relationships—they fill a different need. They are not exclusive—in fact, you should have civic relationships with many people. But they are not devoid of emotion either; they are marked by a degree of loyalty, trust, and hope. Working and talking with fellow citizens builds and strengthens civic relationships, which are scarce but renewable sources of energy and power.

A combination of deliberation, collaboration, and civic relationships is the core of citizenship. If we had much more of this kind of civic engagement, we could address our nation’s most serious problems. Colleges and universities can be part of the solution if they recall their civic mission and participate in deliberation, collaboration, and relationship-building.

Levine continues by providing examples of studies of communities that show that towns with a more robust network of civic relationships have real implications for battling unemployment. Read all of Levine’s remarks here.