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The Effect of Education’s Decline on Civic Culture

Thursday, September 19th, 2013

In the Wall Street Journal, CUNY professor Jonathan Jacobs argues that American education does not adequately prepare students for responsible civic life, raising questions for the future of American democracy.

Jacobs traces the root of the problem to the lack of analytical thinking required in many college courses, where students “have little grasp of the difference between merely ‘saying something’ and constructing an explanation or formulating an argument.” Students enter college unprepared to analyze complex arguments, and professors often reinforce the problem by encouraging ideological scorekeeping, leading to a politicized view of the issue, Jacobs argues. He writes:

Such blinkered thinking has serious implications for civic culture and political discourse. It discourages finding out what the facts are, revising one’s beliefs on the basis of those facts and being willing to engage with people who don’t already agree with you. What does that leave us with? A brittle, litmus-test version of politics. It is one thing if people move too quickly from argumentation to name-calling; it is another to be unable to tell the difference…

Many employers can attest, as college instructors will too if they’re being frank, that many college graduates can barely construct a coherent paragraph and many have precious little knowledge of the world—the natural world, the social world, the historical world, or the cultural world. That is a tragedy for the graduates, but also for society: Civic life suffers when people have severely limited knowledge of the world to bring to political or moral discussions.

Jacobs asserts that liberal democracy requires a more robust civic culture, and that the current state of education may lead to social friction and more divisive politics if left alone.

Related: For another perspective on civic culture, consider our “Professions and Civic Culture” series which explores the role of specific professions and their effect on the civic culture of the nation. The latest addition to the series is Adam J. White’s essay on attorneys, “Tocqueville’s ‘Most Powerful Barrier’: Lawyers in Civic Society.