In Support of Civil Education

By John Ottenhoff, PhD    //    Volume 27,  Number 3   //    May/June 2019

A new AGB advisory statement urges higher education leaders to recommit to the ideal of promoting democratic values and making direct, pragmatic contributions to the local and national community.

“Many thoughtful observers are convinced that one of America’s urgent needs today is a continued commitment to the principles of democracy. These Americans are troubled by a seeming lack of purpose in our national life. They feel we have lost our sureness of the way toward a better tomorrow. If we have lost our sense of direction, it is a serious matter in this period of rapid and revolutionary change.” As familiar as it sounds, that lament was in fact written in 1947 as part of Higher Education for American Democracy, the report of the commission formed by President Harry Truman to examine the system of higher education in our democracy not only in terms of its objectives, methods, and facilities, but also in terms of the social role it plays in advancing our democratic values.

The recently published AGB advisory statement Reclaiming Higher Education’s Leadership in Support of Civil Education echoes the urgency of the Truman commission report, underscoring concerns about several trends that affect both the nation and higher education: a lack of civic literacy and growing skepticism about democracy as a system and way of life; racism, xenophophia, and other forms of intolerance threatening the sense of E pluribus unum; growing income inequality that threatens social mobility; heightened distrust in institutions and about evidence and facticity; and serious challenges to civil discourse. The statement asserts that “we seem less able as a society to argue civilly, to practice the arts of democracy, and to evoke the democratic virtues that distinguish our nation—and make education itself possible.” The statement embraces the Truman commission’s assertion that “the first and most essential charge upon higher education is that . . . it shall be the carrier of democratic values, ideals, and processes.”

The report of the Truman commission is a particularly apt and important beacon for American higher education for a number of reasons:

  • It responded to a pivotal moment in American history as the world faced the full horrors of the Holocaust and the price of war—and veterans returned by the hundreds of thousands, many of them to face hostility because of their religion or race;
  • It identified the need for “expanding educational opportunities for all able young people,” boldly pushing for increased access and affordability;
  • It recognized the growing diversity of America and explicitly connected democracy and equality: “among these diversities our free society seeks to create a dynamic unity. Where there is economic, cultural, or religious tension, we undertake to effect democratic reconciliation, so as to make of the national life one continuous process of interpersonal, intervocational, and intercultural cooperation”;
  • It established a network of free community colleges and called for increased federal spending on financial aid, fellow-ships, and scholarships.

In summary, the Truman commission called for “Education for a fuller realization of democracy in every phase of living. Education directly and explicitly for international understanding and cooperation. Education for the application of creative imagination and trained intelligence to the solution of social problems and to the administration of public affairs.” And the report still stands as an inspirational document that celebrates the “continuing development of the per-son. The discovery, training, and utilization of individual talents is of fundamental importance in a free society. To liberate and perfect the intrinsic powers of every citizen is the central purpose of democracy, and its furtherance of individual self-realization is its greatest glory.”

In the spirit of the Truman commission, the AGB advisory statement is a call to action for governing boards and leadership to recommit to the ideal of the engaged college or university whose mission includes promoting democratic values and making direct, pragmatic contributions to the local and national community. “Higher education can, should, and indeed must address the critical challenges facing American democracy,” the AGB statement says; “and in the United States, where higher education governance is entrusted to independent boards of citizen trustees, governing boards are especially well positioned to ensure that civil education is an enduring priority for the nation’s colleges and universities.”

The genesis of the statement lies in a meeting last fall of the AGB Senior Fellows. The Fellows expressed a sense of urgency about civil education and what they perceived as a failure to teach the practices that ensure a vital democracy. That urgency was echoed by the AGB Board of Directors. AGB staff thus began to organize a project to assist presidents and governing boards in reclaiming higher education’s leadership in this realm. A convening in Washington, DC, earlier this year brought together a group of thought leaders—AGB Senior Fellows, college and university presidents, and association leaders—for a robust discussion facilitated by Jonathan Alger, JD, the president of James Madison University.

One of the key themes of the advisory statement is that “we cannot take for granted that democracy will continue to operate and thrive without intentional effort from each subsequent generation. As leaders of the sector of society that is fundamentally charged with educating citizens, every college and university holds a measure of responsibility for the health of our democracy.” And the statement emphasizes that “while we must continue to focus on preparing students for meaningful careers, we also must reclaim a focus on education for citizenship.” In this respect, the statement returns to the heart of the Truman commission report following the release of a series of national reports—notably the 2006 Spellings Commission report—that emphasized access and affordability within the sphere of global competitiveness, accountability, and workforce development. As Alger points out, “While almost all of the public discourse today about the mission and role of higher education in society focuses on workforce development and job-ready skills, an emphasis on the public good and civil education should properly be seen as complementing—rather than competing with—this dominant public narrative.” And, he suggests, “most of the skills employers want and need from our graduates are the same skills individuals need for impactful civic engagement: for example, communication skills, critical thinking, teamwork and leadership, problem solving, resilience, intercultural competency, information literacy, and ethical reasoning.”

In using the broad term “civil education” the advisory statement seeks to encompass connected issues involving civic education, civil discourse, civic engagement, and the practice of the “democratic arts.” In that respect, it asserts that institutions of higher learning serve an essential function by educating citizens about democracy, helping students engage productively in the practice of democracy, and in modeling democratic values in their deliberations and interactions with communities: “Higher education can thus help sustain and nourish a healthy democracy by forming engaged citizens who have learned to think broadly about the needs and interests of other people within their communities, states, nation, and, indeed, around the globe.” Again, in the words of the Truman commission, “education for all is not only democracy’s obligation but its necessity. Education is the foundation of democratic liberties. Without an educated citizenry alert to preserve and extend freedom, it would not long endure.”

Alger adds that “we can, and should, articulate and emphasize the ‘public good’ aspect of our mission along with the private benefits for individuals associated with job and career placement. AGB’s statement is a recognition of the critical public role that our institutions play in supporting and sustaining our society’s democratic values and structures through the education of engaged citizens from many backgrounds and perspectives.” Underscoring a strong theme of the discussion and the statement, Alger stresses that “civic engagement helps students focus beyond themselves on the circumstances and needs of other people in their communities and society. When students shift their focus in this way they develop understanding, empathy, and a deeper sense of connection to others. Alger and others who participated in the convening emphasize that students “also develop a sense of agency and purpose as they reflect on how they can use their education and skills to make a difference in addressing important public challenges of our time.

This kind of personal development also has the potential to make a positive impact on mental health challenges such as feelings of loneliness, disconnectedness, and anxiety and depression, which represent a near-epidemic crisis among students in higher education today.”

The AGB civil education statement offers 10 “suggested practices” for governing boards and presidents that, while not prescriptive, point the way to constructive action that can be adapted to campuses large and small, public and private. These include:

  • Supporting and empowering faculty in their curricular work that embraces the goal of education for democracy. This includes the linkage between the “core values of general and liberal education and the necessary skills for engaging personally in the practice of democracy” and “high-impact” experiential learning. As many campuses have discovered, service-learning projects, community-based research, internships, and other forms of civic engagement are not only helpful for student learning and persistence in college but are also reinforcers of student well-being. Additionally, research shows a positive impact disproportionately experienced by students from groups historically underserved by higher education.
  • Focusing campus conversations and making civil education an institutional priority. Governing boards and presidents—through words of support, attendance at events, and recognition of key participants—can help shape campus cultures in support of civil education. Even more powerfully, they can make the practice of democracy and engagement in civic life a focus of board discussion—and priorities in mission statements, strategic plans, and campus policies.
  • Auditing current practices. If, in fact, campuses agree that students should know something about how government works and should be engaged citizens, outcomes should be assessed. And leaders should ask which institutional practices make a difference for learners in this regard. Results of such audits shared with the board can inform strategic planning and future activities.
  • Modeling civil discourse and debate. At a time when the vitriolic espousing of opinions often substitutes for trying to understand different points of view and many choose to block out or shout down opposing viewpoints, presidents and boards can advance the practice of democracy by modeling those processes themselves. Boards can ensure that all participants in discussions, deliberations, and decision making in board meetings show respect for each other, practice careful listening and reasoned debate, and operate in a spirit of collaboration and openness. Board members who speak out publicly on civic issues—and support their president and faculty as public voices advocating for civil education—similarly reinforce the values of democracy.

The AGB advisory statement makes other suggestions for practices that might help all stakeholders—including faculty, staff, students, parents, alumni, legislators, and community members—understand why civil education is important. In this respect, trustees serve as guardians of higher education: They must recognize that the ongoing viability of colleges and universities depends on having citizens capable of doing the work of democracy, that a lack of attention to civil education is a risk for higher education and the nation. Citizen trustees are in an especially good position to make the case about these values for higher education.

Many of the observations and recommendations in the civil education advisory statement may seem noncontroversial—on the order of apple pie and baseball. But in discussing civil education, the group of thought leaders participating in the AGB convening pointed to a number of issues that bear further discussion. Indeed, vigorous debate and conversation as well as open dialogue and engagement, are major goals of the statement. For instance, while “civility” seems an unambiguous goal for our society, many campuses have discussed how it can become a club against “difference.” The statement urges that honest differences of opinion and constructive “speaking out” be respected—and that campuses respect cultural traditions that may affect definitions of “civility.” The statement also acknowledges that American education has not always been a champion of democratic values and that many institutions of higher education employed practices of exclusion and racism in the past; acknowledging the past is an important step toward deepening democratic understanding. The statement also urges that campuses not simply treat students as preparing for citizenship but acknowledge their rights and responsibilities as full citizens—and, often, as demonstrative and engaged citizens. At the same time, the very concept of citizenship needs to be understood in its complexities, especially with undocumented students who desire to fully engage as participants in our democracy and our colleges and universities.

The AGB advisory statement on civil education will have been successful only if it promotes further discussion and then action promoting a renewed sense of commitment to being “the carrier of democratic values, ideals, and processes.” AGB plans to hold a number of convenings throughout the country for advancing those conversations. And, perhaps, those rigorous, vibrant, and honest discussions—both advancing and demonstrating the values of democratic practice—may lead to a renewed version of the Truman commission report on higher education. Just as the Truman commission recognized the need for substantial intervention in support of higher education for many more citizens, in support of equality and the habits of mind that make democracy thrive, so too the nation’s colleges and universities now need a champion—and a national commitment to the importance of higher education not just for the health of our economy but for the health and survival of our democracy.

AUTHOR: John Ottenhoff, PhD, is the interim chief operating officer of AGB and served as the principal organizer of the advisory statement project. He participated in the convening with AGB staff including Richard D. Legon, AGB’s president and chief executive officer; David Tritelli, PhD, the former director of the AGB Press; and Tim McDonough, AGB’s former vice president for government and public affairs.

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