Declining Civic Engagement: Democratic Theory and Liberal Arts to the Rescue?
by Charles Helm
(The 2nd Annual Liberal Arts Lecture, September 14, 2004)
Thanks John for the flattering comments. Let me return the compliment, though in a form that is at my expense. Over the past few months a number of colleagues have noted and complimented my choice as the Liberal Arts lecturer for this year. They then offered some fond remembrance of your lecture last year and expressed assurance I would uphold the fine tradition you had established. The assurance, however, often seemed tinged by a note of caution rather than the preferred declarative tone.
I wish to thank the Liberal Arts Committee for selecting me to give the Liberal Arts Lecture. I appreciate the presence of friends and colleagues and the kind words of support they have offered over the past few months. I also wish to acknowledge my sister, Claire, who has flown in from DC as the official representative of the family. Thanks also to my wife, Jutta, who was a frequent sounding board and critic as I worked on this lecture. She also effectively deflated any thought that the liberal arts lecturer could skip out on his domestic chores. Finally, let me acknowledge the students in attendance. If at times my remarks seem rather critical of student disengagement, it is not personal and surely not at your expense. It is rather that your participation and contribution to our civic life are vital, and it is a plea to become involved.
Let me begin my talk by setting out the questions that will frame my discussion. Since the call for a question/framework is a common plea, almost a mantra that I direct to undergraduate and graduate students in their writing, it behooves me to practice what I preach.
In the first part of the talk I will elaborate on my understanding of the liberal arts and the rationale for this lecture series. In the second section I will outline the plight of civic engagement in the American polity, set out the core values of a democratic society, and then address the conundrum of whether the fostering of civic engagement is an appropriate task for an institution of higher learning. Does the effort to enhance civic engagement and develop participatory skills cross a line demarcating the pursuit of truth, the values of academic freedom, neutrality and the scientific method on the one hand, and on the other hand, the effort to foster character development, civic engagement, and schooling for democratic values?
Since the liberal arts lecture is still a fledgling event, it might be fruitful to remind ourselves of the rationale behind this talk. The lecture was meant to instruct, to engage the larger community, students and faculty, on the nature of the liberal arts and why the first few years of a university education are devoted to a wide range of foundational courses in diverse disciplines. In part there was also a defensive tone, a sense that students were questioning the liberal arts, by other colleges in the university, and by the larger community. A university education has been increasingly defined in terms of economic categories, with the language of the market and customer satisfaction. Where does a survey course in English lit, world history or geology fit into that? On a more positive note, the liberal arts lecture was also meant to affirm and remind the members of the College of Arts and Sciences and the larger university community why we felt education in the liberal arts was worthwhile and worth defending. Of course something worth defending is also worth criticizing as we ponder our successes, our failures and the challenges we face. My task in this lecture is one both of public relations and of critical inquiry.
What are the liberal arts? Unfortunately there is no neat capsule definition that I can offer. It is what the political theorist William Connolly has called a “contested concept” with real differences in the meaning, particularly when viewed in the comparative contexts of time and culture. I’ll offer several cuts at a definition first, with a little bit of intellectual biography, a life in the liberal arts, and then turn to some key historical shifts in the history of the liberal arts.
In recounting a few stages in my career, it is not with the claim that I have moved forward in neat lock step, liberal arts goal clearly in mind. This is also not an exercise in narcissism, or at least only a mild variant of one, legitimized by my role as liberal arts lecturer. If I can’t do it now, when will I get another opportunity?
One of the nice offshoots of feminism is that it is now considered appropriate, almost necessary, to link your research agenda with your life setting. My area of specialty is political theory and the philosophy of science. Plato, Aristotle and Mill, preeminent figures in the liberal arts, were frequent bedtime reading. As an undergraduate I sampled a variety of majors from American Studies to European History to International Relations with the idea of a career in the State Department – I now find it inexplicable to grasp, but I saw myself emulating Henry Kissinger. After considerable soul searching and serendipity, I came to rest in political theory, with an emphasis on modern political theory. This dabbling is a clear reflection of a real tension in the liberal arts. I have never been comfortable in disciplinary specializations, let alone sub-disciplinary specializations. If we intuitively think the liberal arts have something to do with breadth, then our narrow specialties seem in tension with that more Renaissance-like goal. Our specializations render dialogue across the disciplinary boundaries a challenge if not a frightening adventure.
Liberal arts lectures to the college and to the university are few and far between. My disciplinary unease, even within the encompassing house of Classical and Modern Political Theory, from Plato to NATO, is reflected in my teaching often outside the confines of theory. I have developed and taught courses in Politics and Film, Politics and Literature, Propaganda and Social Control, Public Opinion and Voting Behavior, and the History of the Law. In my research, I’ve published on Jimmy Carter and the Press, Rush Limbaugh and Introductory Texts, a guideline for using literature to teach political science, Workplace Safety, Campaign Finance, Milgram’s Obedience Experiments and several rather obscure articles on causality and the ceteris paribus clause. I’ve attended multiple National Endowment for the Humanities and National Science Foundation summer seminars with topics like Human Nature, Philosophy of the Natural Sciences, and Models and Metaphors in the Natural Sciences. (God forbid one in political science.) If I might offer one cautionary remark since I now have the floor….There has been talk within the upper administration of the need for faculty to pursue a coherent research agenda and sequentially build a reputation in some narrow sub-specialty. In good liberal arts fashion I would suggest a more tolerant “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom” approach. We need the specialists but also a few intrepid guides and explorers to lead us across the disciplinary boundaries.
In the area of service, I have been the Director of Interdisciplinary Studies and chaired the General Education review of ten years ago. I am now co-chairing the American Democracy Project (ADP) with Mario Morelli. Finally, I have always sought to foster dialogue and discussion, what I will later call Deliberative Democracy. Ten years ago Phyllis Farley Rippey and I developed the Dialogue series, which has been recently resuscitated, to foster cross-disciplinary discussion of liberal arts issues. Thirty years ago Mario Morelli and I formed a group now called the Morgan Hall Irregulars that have met late on Friday afternoons for thirty years. (Our group began as a kind of mutual aid society as we worked our way thru the 500 pages of John Rawl’s Theory of Justice. I’ve always found the term “Community of Scholars” to be marvelously evocative: a bunch of people sitting around talking about things that matter. How could it get any better than that?) The disciplinary specializations within the group have ranged far and wide: philosophy/religious studies, biology, communication, history, mathematics, sociology/anthropology and, of course, the queen of the disciplines, political science. Our approach has been to select a book and read and discuss a chapter a week. The topics varied widely, but if there was any recurring theme it centered on how to ground knowledge claims, the classic issue of relativism vs. objectivity. Richard Rorty, Stanley Fish, Habermas, Daniel Dennett, Thomas Kuhn have all staked out positions on this issue. Because the issue of relativism and objectivity is at the center of how I conceive the liberal arts, I should forewarn you that this theme will return shortly.
While I have offered several hints about the meaning of the liberal arts, it is still pretty murky. One simple variant is to affirm WATCH WHAT I DO. The liberal arts are reflected in the distribution requirements and course listings under general education. They include 15 departments in the College of Arts and Sciences ranging from History and English/Journalism in the Humanities to Physics and Chemistry in the Natural Sciences to Psychology and Political Science in the Social Sciences. A liberal arts education is achieved with successful completion of the general education requirements, 43 hours for the university and 60 hours for our college. Louis Menand has suggested that “Most people think about liberal education what Gandhi said he thought about Western civilization: he said he thought it would be a good idea. People tend to think liberal education is a good idea without being much more particular about it than that.” (Menand, 1997, 1) Clearly, however, we need to say more. One way to clarify the meaning is by saying what a liberal arts education is not, by defending it from a litany of critics in the eighties and early nineties. The works should be familiar to many in the audience: William Bennett’s To Reclaim a Legacy; Lynne Cheney’s Humanities in America; and, the most well known of the indictments, Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. The tone throughout these works is grim and slightly apocalyptic.
The line of march generally pursued [in these works] is drearily familiar; … almost canonical. A golden age of educational coherence and curricular integrity is evoked or implied. If its precise location is not more than foggily determined, that it has been succeeded by a more or less catastrophic fall from grace is not left in doubt. The recent history of undergraduate education in the United States emerges as a deplorable descent from the realms of gold to our current age of iron—an age distinguished by declining academic standards, curricular incoherence, creeping consumerism, rampant vocationalism and wavering sense of mission. (Oakley, 3-4)
In the writings of Bennett and Bloom the liberal arts refer to teaching a set of truths from a narrow grouping of canonical works. For Bloom, in particular, these works center on the philosophical tradition of the Greeks and Romans with the student instructed to probe the universal truths they embody. In varying degrees many of the critiques suggest an image of a small liberal arts college, circa 1950, with a narrow core curriculum. The liberal arts defenders of a body of knowledge that has remained constant over an extended period of time. There is little attention to the expansion of the university as they struggled to meet the influx of African-Americans, women, and Hispanic and Latino students over the past thirty years. Throughout many of these critiques there is little cognizance of the “range, looseness, variability and flexibility of the liberal arts tradition itself across the course of its long history, or the tensions which have wracked it for centuries.” (Oakley, 5; Orrill, 1995, xv) The origins of the liberal arts go back to the Romans if not the Greeks. The etymological roots of the word liberal are found in the Latin liberalis. The first recorded use of the term artes liberalis is with Cicero in the first century b.c. (Kimball, 13) The richness, diversity, and tensions within the liberal arts are nicely drawn in Bruce Kimball’s Orators and Philosophers: A History of the Idea of Liberal Education. Kimball argues that the liberal arts have been marked by two conflicting visions “between the rhetorical vision of liberal education as pivoting on the cultivation of the ancient classics or their derivatives [orators] and the philosophical-scientific model driven by the urge for critical originality and advancing via the overthrow or received assumptions [philosophers.] The former traditionally has been directed to the development of the skills pertinent to public expression and legal and political persuasion…. The latter, instead, has persistently been targeted on the advancement of knowledge and understanding and on the development of critical rationality.” (Oakley, 5) Part of the richness and vibrancy of the liberal arts is in the movement between these two positions in the midst of profound intellectual, demographic, and economic changes over the past fifty years. There is no end point to this process, no resting place where we can sit back on our laurels breathing a collective sigh of relief. We can view the tensions, frustrations, and robustness of the liberal arts in the history of WIU. Over the past fifteen years the liberal arts have been asked to adjust as new “topics have entered the liberal arts curricula…. The history and culture of non-western peoples and of ethnic and racial minorities within the united states, the experiences and achievements of women, the history and concerns of lesbians and gay men.” (Nussbaum, 2) There is little sense in these critiques of the dynamism of the liberal arts, of the history and changes that bracket the period they are criticizing. In the aftermath of WWII we have seen the impact of the GI Bill with a real democratization of higher education, the Baby Boom, and changes in the demographic portrait of the student body. Higher education and the liberal arts have shown remarkable flexibility as we have waged canon wars and redefined much of the subject matter of our disciplines in an effort to respond to this diversity.
There is no essentialist or universal core to the liberal arts, no neat definition. The liberal arts have adjusted to diverse demands and conditions over the course of several thousand years. In addition to the demographic changes previously outlined, the language of consumerism and the market has become increasingly dominant in higher education. We market our product through talk of the differences in salary accompanying four years of higher education. As a department chair I am frequently asked by concerned parents what their sons and daughters can hope for in the political science job market. The job market is increasingly more fragmented, and the university seeks to adjust with new job specializations.
The capacity of the liberal arts to adjust to these conflicting demands is certainly one indication of their strength, but it also places considerable demands on the practitioners. And as I suggested previously, along with the praise must come a bit of questioning. The vibrancy and robustness of the liberal arts can also be seen as the flip side of vacuity and hand waving. Amidst all the change and redefinition of disciplines and distribution requirements, what exactly are we preserving? As we have made these changes in our curriculum, we have certainly had dialogue and exchange on the various committees. But at the risk of irreverence and myopia, dare I say that the college and university curriculum committees and the Faculty Senate are not well positioned for philosophical debates about the liberal arts….One recommendation to come from my talk. We really need more venues, like the Liberal Arts lecture, to interact over fundamental issues like the meaning of the liberal arts. It is through dialogue, through deliberative democracy, that we become a “community of scholars.” We develop rules and practices that define and distinguish our activities. I have mentioned previously the Morgan Hall Irregulars (I should in honesty note that, while we prefer the name Morgan Hall Irregulars, our colleagues have suggested other titles. Larry Balsamo labeled us the “Hot Air Society,” Jean Ellikson referred to us as the “Men’s Discussion Group,” and Irv Berg has called us the “Great Minds Group.”) Over the years, even while the irregulars were from quite different disciplines, we have developed a set of unwritten rules and norms that guide debate and discussion. We don’t necessarily change our minds -- David Haugen and I are in regular and well-defined disagreement. But through discussion and intellectual engagement we have clarified our differences as we sharpened arguments and positions. The importance of our Friday meetings has been clarified by Larry Balsamo. Whenever we get too full of ourselves, he pops in and announces that there has not been so distinguished a group assembled in one room since Thomas Jefferson dined alone.
At several points during the lecture I will need to make some difficult distinctions. Here is one of those occasions. I need this distinction both for the discussion of the liberal arts and for the later discussion of civic engagement and democratic theory. I indicated before that the issue of relativism vs. objectivity has frequently been at the heart of our Friday afternoon conversations. As with many academic debates, I think the combatants have drawn the distinctions too sharply between relativism and some version of objectivity. We need not impale ourselves on some version of postmodernism on the one hand or Platonic universalism or essentialism on the other. (If this all sounds maddeningly abstract to you, one of those classic tempests in the teapots we academics are so fond of, look at the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush in their talk of good and evil. They argue that their grounding of ethics in talk of good and evil was a clear counter to the mushy relativism of prior administrations. Ronald Reagan and, more recently, George W. Bush have thrown down an absolutist gauntlet and, in the eyes of some conservative commentators, the result was the collapse of Communism.) We can certainly accept the claim of the relativists that “The search for truth is a human activity, carried on with human faculties, in a world in which human beings struggle, often greedily, for power.” (Nussbaum, 40) But those truths don’t undermine the pursuit of objectivity. We need a more nuanced view of objectivity that rests on an appeal to our human experience as defined by our time and culture. It is crucial to our conception of the liberal arts that we regard the world as knowable and truly describable by human beings even while shaped by our concepts and mental faculties. (Nussbaum, 39) If there is to be an integrating theme about the liberal arts, it rests on our ability to grasp and understand the common world or reality. Charles Anderson has argued:
We are going to have to assert that some ways of understanding are better than others; that some tell more truth, more reliably inform us about the world; that some are more seemly, or civil, or more effective as guides to action. It is to say that the colleges and universities are responsible for distinguishing between the reasonable and the unreasonable, the warranted and the unwarranted, the better and the worse, that is their calling to distinguish among the possibilities of belief and comprehension, and to teach, to prescribe, the better habits of mind.” (Anderson, 115)
Enough said about the history, grounding in knowledge claims, and demographic changes: What do we want from a liberal arts education? The Greek Injunction to “Know Thyself” and the Socratic quest for an examined life are at the core of our hopes. As per the charge against Socrates, we as educators seek “to corrupt the young.” The life of Socratic questioning is not somewhat useful, the icing on the cake, it is indispensable to our growth as human beings. In a democratic society, the critical questioning of our beliefs, the willingness to enter imaginatively, emphatically into the world of another is essential as we pursue common goals and define our polity. James Freedman, in Idealism and Liberal Education, phrased it far more eloquently than I. Ideally
A liberal education acquaints students with the cultural achievements of the past and prepares them for the exigencies of an unforeseeable future. It provides them with standards by which to measure human achievement. It fires their minds with new ideas—powerful and transcendent ideas that will trouble them, elevate them, and brace them for new endeavors. It offers students an opportunity to develop the humane empathy and moral courage required to endure uncertainty, disappointment, and suffering.
A liberal education also stirs students to probe the mysteries of the natural world, to reflect on the rise and fall of cultures, to find meaning in the enduring achievements of the Western and Eastern civilizations, and to consider the ambiguities and arguable lessons of human history. And it awakens them to the power to shape, question, and impose order on human experience and human destiny, to express the hopes and despairs, the dreams and nightmares of the human condition. Further, a liberal education encourages students to seek the affirmation of their authentic selves. It sets in motion a process of critical examination and imaginative introspection that leads students toward personal definition. It helps students to develop an independent perspective for reflecting on the nature and the texture of their lives. And it inspires students to delineate the foundations of their moral identity and to find their distinctive ways through the complicated and uncertain process by which intellectual and moral maturation occurs. (Freedman, 1-2)
Civic Engagement and Democratic Theory
Let us now turn to talk of Civic Engagement and Democratic Education. If the task of the liberal arts is critical thinking, imagination, and a chance to probe human diversity, how does the training of a democratic citizen fit within this picture? Why narrow the range of human possibility to training for engaged citizenship?
I will begin with a definition of civic engagement and then look at some of the evidence about civic disengagement amongst college age students. I will then turn to a discussion of the values intrinsic to a democratic society and engaged citizenship and then set out the terms of dispute between those for and against the teaching of civic engagement in a university setting. I will conclude with a rationale and justification for teaching democratic values and end with a discussion of 9/11/01 and civic engagement.
In a recent study commissioned by the American Political Science Association, Civic Engagement is defined as “activities associated with campaigns and elections, including, voting; working for an organization on behalf of a candidate or campaign; signing a petition; boycotting, attending a rally, speech, or dinner on behalf of a candidate, party, or ballot issue; contributing money to a campaign or cause; displaying political buttons, bumper stickers, or yard signs; lobbying a government official; writing a letter to a newspaper about a public issue and trying to persuade others to voter for or against a candidate, party, or ballot initiative.” (Macedo, 6) The most dramatic example of civic engagement is expressed in the willingness to participate in the political process through the vote. But, as the list suggests, civic engagement comes in many flavors and varieties. Civic engagement is also reflected in our involvement with voluntary associations and non-profit associations as well as more direct citizen involvement without the mediation of public officials. Civic engagement relates, however, to more than a series of practices and institutions. As John Dewey reminds us, the vote is a “culmination of a much richer process that includes a host of prior conversations, judgments, and actions.” (APSA, p. 6) It refers to the capacity of persons to engage in democratic self-rule and to identify and act upon their preferences. I have quite purposely not included much of what goes under the heading of service learning within this account of civic engagement. For many of the participants in these admittedly admirable activities, politics and service activity are often at two ends of the spectrum. Service activity is couched in terms of voluntarism and tends to be individualistic, accompanied by a deep suspicion of the traditional political process. Service learning, with its “hands-on" aspect, seems more meaningful and relevant than participation in the warp and woof of political activity.
What is the evidence of civic disengagement among college age students? The data is voluminous, and the trend lines are almost invariably in the wrong direction. I’ll offer some general figures about electoral participation and some specific figures for 18 to 24 year olds.
1. The highest turnout in the 20th century was in 1960, between
Kennedy and Nixon, with 63% of eligible voters exercising their right to
vote. Turnout in 2000 in an equally contested race was 51%. (Galston,
219) A rather grim figure but at least an improvement on 1996 when
turnout dropped below 49%.
2. In 1972, the first year in which eighteen year-olds could vote, turnout among these new voters was 52%, in 2000 it was 37%. (Campbell, 1)
3. From the mid 1970s to recent years, the number of adolescents who said they could see themselves working on a political campaign dropped by about half.
4. Several large surveys of college freshmen, the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) and the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI), report the percentage of students that indicate “’keeping up with political affairs’ is ‘Very Important’ or ‘Important’ declined from 57.8% in 1966 to 42.4% in 1990. That percentage has declined even more sharply over the past decade, reaching an all-time low of 28.1 %( HERI)” in 2000. (Jones, 7)
5. “Over the more than three decades since the initiation of the … [HERI] survey, every significant indicator of political engagement has fallen by at least half. Only 26% of freshmen think that keeping up with politics is important, down from 58% in 1966. Only 14% say they frequently discuss politics, down from 30%. Acquisition of political knowledge from traditional news sources is way down, and relatively few young people are using the news media to replace newspapers and network TV news as sources of political information.” (Galston, 219)
Over the past thirty years there has been a decline in civic participation across all age groups in the American population, but the decline among 18 to 24 year olds has been the sharpest. This finding is all the more troubling in that there is a good deal of evidence to suggest that generational traits across time are quite stable. The political generations now in their fifties and sixties have been civicly engaged throughout their lives. Increasing civic engagement is not a function of aging.
To try to address this decline in civic engagement amongst college-age students the American Association of State Colleges and Universities initiated a three-year American Democracy Project. Over 170 schools are participating with two schools from the state of Illinois, ISU and WIU. As you might imagine, we are participants at the behest of President Goldfarb. Before I blow the ADP horn of civic boosterism, it is necessary to acknowledge that there are some very compelling reasons for apathy amongst our college student body. I’ll simply set out what is now a fairly standard litany in the literature. If this takes on some added poignancy as the City on the Hill seeks to export its democratic values to Afghanistan and Iraq, well, so be it.
1. Scandals – Watergate, Iran Gate and Whitewater – have led to efforts at impeaching several presidents.
2. Money and Politics – The saga of the McCain-Feingold Act, which attempted to stop the use of soft money in political campaigns while closing some loopholes, has had little effect on the amount of money pouring into our campaigns.
3. Racism – It remains a compelling issue, even if neither party wishes to address it.
4. Ideological Excess of the Parties in Congress – The Moderate Middle among congressional representatives has disappeared, particularly amongst Republicans in the House. The ideological gap between the parties in Congress is not reflected in the American electorate.
5. Income Inequality – A report issued just a week ago by the American Political Science Association, suggests that public officials are much more responsive to the privileged than to the average citizen and the least affluent.
Disparities in wealth have recently grown more sharply in the
United States than in Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and many other
advanced industrial democracies…. From the mid-1970s on, the United
States rapidly diverged … and became far more unequal. By 1998, the
share of income held by the very rich was two or three times higher in
the United States than in Britain and France. (Jacobs, 3)
6. Finally, gerrymandering of congressional elections – “In the 2002 congressional midterm elections, only 15 of 435 races were decided by four percentage points or less. In California, the two parties engage in such effective incumbent protection when redistricting that when fifty members of Congress ran for re-election in 2002 (out of 53 congressional seats), all fifty won. And in the closest of the contests, the incumbent won with fifty-eight percent of the vote.” (Macedo, 15) Earlier in the year we were treated to the ludicrous scene of Texas Democrats fleeing the state in order to bloc a vote on redistricting. The 17th congressional district of Illinois, Lane Evans’ district, is now a textbook example of gerrymandering. To maintain the requirement of contiguousness in the district, one section of the district runs along the ninth fairway of a local golf course. Slicing or hooking a ball puts you in two different districts. [I should note that the redistricting was done by an independent commission and not by the representative’s office.]
In my newfound status as Liberal Arts lecturer, if I had any accompanying power, I would pursue the simple, yet politically impossible reform of non-partisan redistricting. There is almost no reform that would have a speedier impact on returning elections to the citizenry. The state of Iowa recently enacted non-partisan redistricting with the lines drawn along county lines demarcating clearly contiguous areas. The result is that Iowa, with 5 representatives, has more contested races in 2004 than the state of California with 53 representatives.
I could easily extend the list, but you get the point. Withdrawal from our political process is not an unreasonable response. That said, withdrawal, non-voting, disengagement are catastrophic for a democratic system. The 2004 election poses major issues in regards to the war on terrorism, the war in Iraq and foreign policy in particular. In the domestic area, environmental legislation, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and a possible reconsideration of Roe v. Wade before the Supreme Court are issues in play. Like it or not, the political process will not go away. As voting turnout continues to decline, it is increasingly the province of the privileged and the elite who are wont to enact legislation they are dead certain is in our best interest.
Civic Engagement and Democracy
What are the constitutional and cultural values necessary for a functioning democratic society, more particularly for democracy in America? We have all heard the litany of constitutional values: free speech, free press, right of association, rule of law, and universal adult suffrage. The institutional implementation of these values rests on competing political parties organized around differing policy positions. We need an electoral process that allows for regular consideration of candidates and their policies. A democratic system requires some degree of transparency and openness in the decision-making, allowing for assessment and reconsideration of our elected officials. We need a media that provides a reasonably fair accounting of the political process, investigating infractions of the laws, the processes of deliberation, who was included and who was excluded, and some perspective to help us make sense of the deliberations. In the language of DeTocqueville and his latest emanation, Robert Putnam, a democratic society also requires a vibrant associational life in which we learn to trust each other and work together. In Putnam’s words, we acquire Social Capital that translates into a willingness to live the life of an engaged citizen. (Putnam)
It is also important as citizens that we come to understand the complexity of the American political system. The separation of powers and checks and balances that we so often praise in describing our political system also guarantee that the passage of legislation will be difficult and often unsuccessful. Even after passage by the two houses of Congress and the President, the Supreme Court, over the past ten years, has been quite willing to strike down efforts to limit the powers of the states. Ours is a system with multiple blockage points, rendering the legislative process purposely confusing and frustrating. If there are two truths about American politics and American society that I would highlight for the fledgling citizen, they are: 1) Interest group politics is immeasurably strengthened by our political system with its complexity, its multiple points for the blockage of legislation. The founding fathers wanted to make the passage of legislation a difficult process, and they have succeeded admirably. 2) We are an increasingly pluralistic society with real differences dividing us along a variety of lines. Issues like abortion, gun control, and health care legislation are reflective of real differences played out in the legislature but are also reflective of real differences in the American electorate. If we as the public have no neat resolutions of these issues, we shouldn’t expect our representatives to see any more clearly through our differences and disagreements.
There is an odd schizophrenia about our perception of the political process. We bemoan interest group politics, the endless bickering and deal making, the abject messiness of it all. Talk of the common good and the need for a return to an earlier statesmanship of our founding fathers is a frequent refrain in public opinion polls and Fourth of July orations. In a major new study by John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse, they suggest a close linkage between the decline in political engagement and the views that students, and Americans in general, hold regarding conflict and controversy. While we like conflict and controversy in competitive sports and reality TV, we “generally dislike contentious disputes about politics, policy issues, and governance.” (Hess, p. 1) Unfortunately the simplistic language of a public or common good simply does not capture or ameliorate the power struggles that characterize our pluralistic republic. Hibbing and Morse suggest that we “revamp what students in elementary and secondary schools are taught about democracy… controversy is not an unfortunate byproduct of democracy, but one of its core and vital elements.” (Hess, 1)
The values and culture required in a meaningful democracy, however, go well beyond a close attention to current events and the institutions and values we have just outlined. Democracy deals with disagreement through procedures, constitutionally and deliberatively. Each procedure has corresponding values and skills that are requisite to a democratic society. Citizens must be able to discern whether procedures are fair or unfair, just or unjust. The expansion of the suffrage to African-American voters in the sixties required a willingness to criticize and to seek, through the Civil Rights movement, to make the suffrage universal. “Constitutionally citizens must learn their own rights and to respect the rights of others. The skills of deliberation require the capacity to reason together in our discussions about public policy as we seek to reach mutually acceptable decisions.” (Gutmann, 2000, 78) Deliberation and reasoning together requires that we learn to tolerate our differences and enter empathetically into the world of another. As our pluralistic society grows more diverse, we need to understand contrasting beliefs and values so that we can deliberate together to arrive at common goals. “The willingness to deliberate about mutually binding matters distinguishes democratic citizens from self-interested citizens, who turn themselves into passive subjects.” (Gutmann, 1997, xiii)
If this all sounds demanding and a trifle idealistic, this skepticism is a clear marker of how far we have fallen from the values and beliefs underpinning a democratic society. If we doubt our capacity to engage in deliberative democracy with all the accompanying need for critical reasoning, empathy, and tolerance, we render ourselves passive victims of the powers that be. Politics is not a binary switch. It will not go away even if, like Candide, we could return to domestic tranquility – gardening, reality TV and home sweet home.
Still, even if we grant the truth of this picture of civic disengagement and the demands of democratic citizenship, is it really appropriate for the university to become involved in the education and molding of citizens? We are all familiar with talk of the “Ivory Tower” and the suggested isolation from the immediate concerns of the larger society. Talk of “academic freedom” also suggests great leeway within the classroom to pursue alternate viewpoints free of the prying eyes of the administration and larger society. I will briefly outline two classic statements on academic freedom and the dangers of partisanship. For good measure I will include a recent op ed piece by Stanley Fish. 1) In 1915 the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) was founded and established the “principal tenets of academic freedom: the right of professors to speak … their minds freely as teachers and scholars; the guarantee of tenure, with its protection from dismissal except for incompetence or moral dereliction; and the right of faculty members to have a hearing before being disciplined.” (Bok, 5) In return for the granting of academic freedom, the university was declared to be a nonpartisan forum, detached from the struggles of the outside world. Faculty would observe strict neutrality in regards to social, political and economic issues. The AAUP’s greatest fear at the time was less from society or state government and more from weak and intrusive trustees and meddling university presidents. As the ties with society grew increasingly intricate after World War II, talk of an Ivory Tower and the isolated Community of Learning grew increasingly strained and murky.
In a famous speech delivered in 1918, the German scholar, Max Weber, gave a compelling address on ”Science as a Vocation.” For Weber, advocacy in the classroom is a crucial issue for the academic profession. “It is said, and I agree, that politics is out of place in the lecture room. It does not belong there on the part of the students… Neither does politics, however, belong in the lecture room on the part of the docents, and when the docent is scientifically concerned with politics, it belongs there least of all.” Our task as teacher, according to Weber, is to help the student “to come to a position where the student may find the point from which, in terms of his ultimate ideals, he can take a stand. But the true teacher will beware of imposing from the platform any political position upon the student, whether it is expressed or suggested.” (Weaver, 1) To ‘let the facts speak for themselves’ is the most unfair way of putting over a position to the student. Weber believed that political advocacy blurred the line between fact and value, and he stressed the unequal power relationship between student and faculty member. Finally, he drew a distinction between the teacher and a moral or political leader. Political leadership is appropriately exercised in the political sphere, not in the classroom.
Finally, Stanley Fish, the colorful former dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, recently wrote the op ed piece “Why We Built the Ivory Tower.” He argues that it is not the task of the university to form character or fashion citizens. He was responding to a declaration from the presidents of 500 universities calling for universities and colleges to take the responsibility for helping students to develop the skills and values necessary for a democratic society. Fish argued that while the practices of responsible citizenship and moral behavior should be encouraged in our young adults…it’s not the business of the university to do so, except when the morality in question is the morality that penalized cheating, plagiarizing and shoddy teaching, and the desired citizenship is defined not by the demands of democracy, but the demands of the academy. This is not because these practices are political, but because they are the political tasks that belong properly to other institutions. Universities could engage in moral and civic education only by deciding in advance which of the competing views of morality and citizenship is the right one, and then devoting academic resources and energy to the task of realizing it. But that task would deform … the true task of academic work: the search for truth and the dissemination of it through teaching. (Fish, 2)
The debate should now be clear. On the one hand we have deteriorating civic engagement, the need for an educational underpinning to democratic institutions and willingness, if not eagerness, on the part of the educational establishment to accept the task. On the other hand the AAUP, Weber and Fish have urged great caution as we embark down that path. The debate is a nice example of the sort of question that we ponder in the liberal arts and in university life. The question blends factual and evaluative issues and has some moment and resonance for our democratic republic. If society asks us what we really do at the university, here is nice illustrative example. We think long and hard about difficult issues confronting our republic.
What sort of a response can we make to these criticisms of the university and its supposed civic responsibilities? Rather than addressing each critique in turn, I will offer a philosophical justification, a set of arguments that responds to the class of criticisms. The argument here is much too sketchy, but it will at least outline some steps in the justification of civic education in a university setting.
Western’s involvement with the American Democracy Project (ADP) began late in the fall semester of 2004. At the behest of Associate Provost Baily, Provost Rallo and President Goldfarb, Mario Morelli and I were asked to coordinate the ADP. We formed an executive committee and by the end of the spring semester the committee recommended a number of initiatives. As we begin our work in the fall semester, the committee has expanded to 40 faculty, administrators, staff, and students. Participation is voluntary and was occasioned by a letter from the president to the faculty. Why have forty people joined in this educational quest? While I have not polled the members for their reasons, I suspect the list would include the following.
1. Surely one of the more compelling reasons is obvious on its
face: “President Al wanted it.” Obviously that is not the only reason,
but it is a reflection of the esteem and respect that we hold for
2. There is general agreement that our democratic republic is in some stress. The events of 9/11 have only heightened the sense of urgency and importance.
3. People have joined the ADP probably with quite different conceptions of citizenship and the appropriate venue for fostering civic engagement.
4. Participation on the committee is voluntary and, while we have received a wealth of material from the American Association of Colleges and Universities, it is the task of each university to develop its own agenda.
5. In true democratic fashion, the committee’s recommendations from last year span a spectrum of activities from film series to election conferences to a music performance to voter registration to debates on campus by the political candidates to participation in the First Year Experience to curricular reform, etc.
Obviously, with many of these initiatives, the larger issues of advocacy, partisanship and character building are not being raised. Many of these initiatives are not directed to the classroom and curriculum reform where the issue of partisanship and advocacy comes to the fore. While these are certainly defensible reasons for the ADP, the issue of Civic Engagement in the Classroom warrants a more philosophical defense.
The role of the state in education has been a troubling question for liberals. John Locke argued that parents are the best protectors of their children’s interests. Public education in any form, he argued, should not be the responsibility of the state. Parents have the right to educate their children as they see fit, free of a centralized state. “But the right to educate is not the right to insulate the student from all external influence. If we value autonomy and growth, neither the state nor the family can claim exclusive authority over the education of the young.” (Gutmann, 1997, 28-33) One of the more compelling checks on indoctrination is the availability of information from a variety of sources. Writing several centuries later, John Stuart Mill, a mid-nineteenth century liberal, suggested that the state had a real responsibility to shape, to educate the citizenry. He argued that “misapplied notions of liberty are a real obstacle to the fulfillment by the state of its duties. One would almost think that a man’s children were supposed to be literally, and not metaphorically, a part of him, so jealous is opinion of the smallest interference of law with his absolute and exclusive control over them…” But what he offered with the one hand in terms of civic education, he retracted with the other. “All attempts by the state to bias the conclusions of its citizens on disputed subjects are evil.” (Gutmann, 1997, 33) Contemporary liberals like the legal scholar Charles Fried have extended Mill’s cautionary remarks, arguing it is not the business of the state to foster moral values by biasing conclusions toward any one conception of the good life, democratic or no. Educational institutions should provide the opportunity for choice and remain neutral towards conflicting conceptions of the good life.
How are we to move beyond this liberal quandary? Society seems to require considerable shaping and education of its citizenry, but the fostering of moral values seems to threaten the crucial democratic liberal value of liberty. The mistake here is in defining the choice in such stark alternatives. Give me liberty or give me death. We are compelled on the one extreme to offer students the widest range of possible alternatives, prejudging none, or, on the other extreme, to select the one true alternative foreclosing all other options. The dichotomous choice is neither necessary nor democratic. The values necessary to underpin a democratic society – critical inquiry, empathy, tolerance, mutual respect, all resulting in autonomy – are not our provenance from birth. They will not appear magically by allowing individuals to pursue their internal journey and to seek their inner essence. Democratic societies recreate themselves through conscious self reproduction, passing on to the young the society that we share. Amy Gutmann has argued:
A society committed to conscious social reproduction has a compelling response to those … who object to the form or content of education on grounds that it indirectly subverts or directly conflicts with their moral values. ‘The virtues and moral character we are cultivating,’ are necessary to give … [students] the chance collectively to shape their society. The kind of character you are asking us to cultivate would deprive …. [students] of that chance, the very chance that legitimates your own claim to educational authority. (Gutmann, 1997, 39)
If the choice of those values conflicts with the values of others, it was a decision arrived at collectively to which they were a party.
The role of educational institutions in molding a comprehensible and accountable political system is a delicate one. Democracy is a sham if our values and beliefs are the products of state indoctrination through our schools. But if we believe in education, if we believe in the liberal arts and their centrality to the educational process, then we must acknowledge that “the values of citizens are not produced by some immaculate process but are molded by social learning and pressures…. The question is not whether schools should produce citizens but whether they should add their relatively small voice to the choruses of influence that do so, and if they should participate, what kinds of themes their teachings should sustain. (March, 159)
Democracy, we have argued, rests on a set of constitutional and cultural values. The values of tolerance and empathy, trust, affection and loyalty among citizens are learned and developed in a variety of settings. And educational institutions are one of the more important venues. Democracy rests on a series of acquired values and skills of critical thinking and logical analysis. It is quite clear that our democratic society is at present doing a very poor job of social reconstruction as we turn from voting and multiple forms of civic engagement. The choice of withdrawal from the democratic process is always available, but we should first acquire the capacities to render a meaningful choice.
Where do the liberal arts belong in this process of civic engagement? Can we really teach citizen engagement? And finally some closing thoughts on what the liberal arts can offer in helping us to understand and confront events like September 11th. Returning to our opening discussion of the liberal arts, there are a variety of points of fruitful overlap where the skills of the liberal arts reinforce the skills needed for meaningful civic engagement. The values of empathy, tolerance, and diversity learned through the liberal arts are essential to the development of our deliberative skills as citizens. Knowledge of our history and culture and acquiring an understanding of other societies and belief systems are also essential skills in democratic citizenship. The goals and objectives of the liberal arts and citizenship training are not always congruent, but they frequently overlap and reinforce each other.
The quickest way to empty a room of faculty is to mention assessment, but mention it we must. Can we can really teach civic engagement? A good deal of data suggests a link between interest in politics, possession of political skills and support for democratic values all being positively correlated with the level of schooling. The larger and more difficult question, however, is whether courses in civic education really translate into change in knowledge, attitudes and conduct. Until fairly recently the consensus within political science was a cautious ‘no.’ In a frequently cited study from the late sixties, Jennings and Langton reported that: “Our findings certainly do not support the thinking of those who look to the civics curriculum in American high schools as even a minor source of political socialization.” (Murphy, 2) While the evidence is hardly definitive, the more recent work of various scholars presents a considerably more positive picture. Della Carpini found that the more knowledgeable individuals were about politics the more likely they were to vote in terms of national economic conditions rather than their personal economic circumstances. (Galston, 225) Similarly, Nie et al., “emphasize the link between absolute years in formal education and the development of prodemocratic principles and attitudes, such as tolerance for unpopular groups.” (Galston, 225) The problem with these studies, however, is that they are not really probing the mechanism by which education is reshaping political attitudes. A recent study of four small communities in the United States by Conover and Searing offers some insight into the mechanisms of successful socialization. They found positive correlations between civic awareness and such school practices as sense of the school as a community, linkages between extracurricular activities and civic engagement, level of political discussion in the school and the formal academic curriculum. Remarkably they found that “the informal civic education that occurs in such non-civics courses as English literature may be more effective than civic education as currently taught.” (Galston, 227) A major 1988 Civics Assessment public opinion study by Niemi and Junn found “significant effects from the amount and … [proximity in time] of civics course work, the variety of topics studied, and the frequency with which current events were discussed in class.” The effects were also independent of demographic variables like gender, ethnicity or home environment. Civic education can make a difference.
What do the liberal arts and education have to offer in helping us understand and confront events like 9/11? We all vividly remember where we were and what we were doing when we first heard about 9/11. The events were “unbelievable,” “incredible,” “inexplicable,” “mind numbing.” (Allen, 21) We were at a loss for words, transfixed with a sense of time out of place. In this state of confusion and paralysis, we are also victims of the terrorist attack. We doubted the very capacity of our society to respond to such events. We were also vulnerable to those who could offer us quick answers and who affirmed the vulnerabilities of a democratic society and our precious freedoms and the need to restrain those freedoms in the name of preserving them.
It is in times such as these that our education, more particularly the liberal arts, can offer us solace, understanding, and hope for the future. They can help to restore our faith in ourselves and our capacity to grapple with and understand events. The liberal arts offer us the resources to think about and critically understand events. They provide perspective by offering us accounts of related events and how humans throughout history have confronted and survived similar horrors.
- Thucydides recounting the war between Athens and Sparta and the threats it posed to Athenian democracy.
- Lincoln helping us to grasp the horrors and meaning of Gettysburg.
- The presidential speeches – Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” and John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.”
- And Martin Luther King offering us a dream and pointing to a better world of understanding where white children and black children can walk hand ind hand.
In the study of these works and their words, we escape our paralysis. We begin to understand the relevant questions to ask about events like 9/11, and we can turn toward the future. Here is the true power of education. We transcend our particular place and time and reacquire our faith in ourselves and our ability to control events. The event is no longer mind-numbing or incomprehensible. In the act of entering the world of Thucydides or Lincoln we become citizens once again in a democratic society. “Citizenship is the struggle, carried out through conversation, to achieve accounts of the world that accord with our norms of friendship and provide grounds for action.” (Allen, 30) In the affirmation of our individual capacities, we resist the Platos of the world, the elites that question the abilities of average citizens to control their lives and participate meaningfully in the political process. Democracy depends on the citizens’ ability to maintain their trust and confidence in their own status and that of their fellow citizens as reflective beings. These are the times that try men’s/women’s souls. Political crises are dangerous times for a democratic society. They are times in which elites, in their doubts about human capacities, seek to restrict and restrain our options and abilities to make choices. Suddenly, in the name of order and security, we are told that many of our previous freedoms must be restricted and restrained. Laws on Homeland Security and the Patriot Act seek to narrow the protections in the courts and restrain the boisterousness of a democratic society. I suggested initially that in our paralysis and bewilderment we were victims of the terrorists. We momentarily lost faith in our ability to control events. Thucydides tells us that in times of crises democratic societies can lose the freedoms and liberties that define them as a society. When our political leaders question our right to criticize their policies or to probe more deeply in the world of the terrorists or to ponder if our policies have contributed in some way to the acts of terrorism, they seek to return us to a state of stasis and paralysis.*
It is vital in times like these that we ponder the meaning of patriotism and its place in our lives. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, patriotism was often defined in a passive sense of learning to love America. We should add to “students’ knowledge of American history, increasing their civic involvement, and deepening their love of country. America is a force for good in the world, bringing hope and freedom to other people.” (Westheimer, 231) For many educators, however, patriotism is defined in a more activist and critical sense. Terrorism, war and the threat of fundamentalist intolerance have renewed their commitments to teaching for democratic citizenship, the kind of citizenship that recognizes ambiguity and conflict, that sees
*The section on 9/11 and the liberal arts reflects many of the points in Allen’s The Thinking Citizen. human conditions and aspirations as complex and contested, and that embraces debate and deliberation as a cornerstone of democratic societies.” (Westheimer, 231) This is not a critique of love of country. It is an affirmation of our desire to seek answers, to probe the meaning of our lives and the events around us. Through our education we seek to understand large events and our place within them. We seek to grasp human motivation and diversity. We seek to become civicly and socially engaged, and that’s a wonderful adventure to pursue.
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