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Can Civics Education in Colleges Strengthen Democracy? | Higher Ed Gamma – Inside Higher Ed

MOOCS and beyond.
Only if it goes well beyond calls to improve civic knowledge, cultivate responsible citizenship and nurture tolerance and civility.
Civics education is once again on the educational agenda.
A bill that would require high school students in Oklahoma to pass a U.S. citizenship test to graduate recently passed the state’s House of Representatives. In Florida, a bill introduced in the state Legislature would allow school districts to introduce civic literacy projects; participation in community service would then count toward eligibility for the state’s Bright Future college scholarships.
Prompted, in part, by the intensifying political partisanship, the summer 2020 racial justice protests and the controversies surrounding The New York Times’s “1619 Project,” the push for civics education reflects a variety of political agendas.
Some of the motivations are certainly commendable — like increasing voter turnout and civic engagement. Others are more narrowly partisan, such as a mistaken belief that high school social studies teachers and college instructors are “teaching kids to hate their country.”
Some of the most recent calls for civics education come from the upper echelon of the academy. One example: Johns Hopkins University president Ronald Daniels’s new volume, What Universities Owe Democracy.
Daniels’s tenure as president of Johns Hopkins has not been without civics-related controversy. Recent examples include:
Then there’s an issue that cuts to the institution’s very heart: whether Johns Hopkins, a Quaker, owned slaves.
In his new book, Daniels argues that American colleges and universities have shunned their responsibility to educate students about the ideas that animate democracy and the institutions that make it function. To be sure, he argues, universities do contribute to liberal democracy by promoting social mobility, checking power with facts and modeling pluralism. To that end, Hopkins, under his tenure, did end legacy admissions. But Daniels wants universities to do more: to infuse debate into campus programming and institute a democracy requirement for graduation.
A full-throated, spread-eagle defense of liberal democracy, Daniels’s book regards as it is the system “best equipped to mediate among the different, competing, and often irreconcilable conceptions of the good and to ensure appropriate care for individual autonomy and dignity.” Universities, in turn, should “serve and enrich liberal democracy.”
But whether Hopkins, with an undergraduate enrollment of just 6,331 (15 percent Pell Grant eligible and 6.7 percent African American) and an endowment of $8.8 billion, is doing everything it can to advance social mobility, cultivate meaningful exchanges of ideas across difference and connect and support the city of Baltimore, is another question.
His argument, like many others in behalf of civics education, rests on certain claims:
But, of course, the main reasons behind the increasingly vocal calls for civics engagement lie elsewhere — in the perception that:
In other words, it’s easy to understand the appeal of civics education. In the eyes of its proponents, civics education has three broad goals:
Still, we must ask,
The biggest question is whether civics education is actually a good idea. After all, aren’t some of the freedoms that Americans enjoy the freedom to ignore politics and to hold and express views that others might find reprehensible?
But given the possibility of a huge federal investment in civics education, it’s not surprising that some college presidents have become staunch advocates of this idea. If, somehow, federal financial support were to materialize, how might colleges and universities actually ramp up civics education in ways that go far beyond how these institutions have handled (or mishandled) Constitution Day?
I can think of several possible approaches:
1. Introducing students to political philosophy. We might ask our students to take part in the centuries-long debates over why governments exist, what makes a government legitimate, what are a government’s chief responsibilities and purposes, and what factors make for good or bad governments. In an introductory course, students might discuss issues relating to:
2. Re-examining American political history. This approach would look critically at the evolution of the American system of government, the ongoing debates over the extent of federal power; immigration; civil rights; economic and social policy; the role of protests and conflict in expanding the electorate and reshaping government policies; and the reasons why the United States has failed to fulfill its democratic, egalitarian aspirations expressed in the Declaration of Independence.
Such an approach might also address the issue of American exceptionalism. As James Q. Wilson and Peter Schuck wrote more than a decade ago, any balanced account of American exceptionalism need not imply national superiority; it simply points to some basic truths.
The United States is distinctive in:
Above all, the United States is distinctive in:
3. Requiring students to take part in a form of community service, civic engagement or service learning experience. If civic engagement is going to be more than a résumé-burnishing exercise or an act of noblesse oblige, then it must address a genuine need identified by the client and result in tangible outcomes. Also, like any other service learning opportunity, the lines of influence must extend both ways. It must be a real partnership with frequent interaction and interchange.
Civics education has a noble (if unrealistic and perhaps paternalistic) goal: to ensure that all students, in the words of Chief Justice John Roberts, have “the tools to understand” our system of government and our collective history. As he put it, “In our age, when social media can instantly spread rumor and false information on a grand scale, the public’s need to understand our government, and the protections it provides, is ever more vital.”
But if institutions are to pursue this path, it’s essential that our colleges and universities do this on their own terms, true to their foundational academic principles. Fostering dialogue and preaching the value of tolerance, civility, public spiritedness and reasoned discourse are all well and good.
But I believe we serve our students and our society most effectively if we do precisely what we do best: promote critical thinking, foster free inquiry, challenge received opinions and interrogate any claim by any authority, and only expect rigor, nuance and well-grounded arguments in return.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.
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