The nation’s premier organization on higher education, the AAC&U, recently published a report from President Obama’s National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement. An extension of the President’s call for a college-educated populace, the Task Force sought to facilitate a national conversation about learning and democracy. Further, the charge examined how education can provide the skills and knowledge as economic and social necessities.
As American as motherhood and apple pie, the Task Force and report functioned at three levels. First under the banner of research, the group learned that students who are active with civic-related issues and activities are more likely to graduate from college, develop skills that are valued by employers, and demonstrate life-long habits of social responsibility and participation. They will be good citizens, in sum, and America will benefit. Determining causality with such students, of course, is at best an exercise in slippery statistics. The correlation, though, rings true.
On another level, the Task Force and report are a call to action, a vehicle for the development and articulation of policy. With the US Department of Education as an active partner, the group’s findings and recommendations call for action in multiple arenas. They include a reinsertion of civic and democratic values in mission statements across all sectors of higher education, a wider and more robust national debate about the issues, the introduction and use of a new framework for civic education, extended collaboration with the the K-12 world, and an ever-increasing number of partnerships and alliances for higher education and other stakeholders based on civic partnerships.
The recommendations are benign or moderately helpful. They seek to build bridges and connections. Nothing is significantly changed through the Task Force’s plans, though some aspects of higher education are enhanced. And all of them follow a traditional arc: state something is important, document how it is important, make it clear that its impact is waning (we read here of a “civic malaise”) and then suggest that higher education more assiduously recognize the item as important. Perhaps not a tautology, the schemata nevertheless smacks of reintroducing and marketing the familiar.
The real value of the Task Force and the report, though, lies in what it tries to resolve but cannot: the tension between the liberal values of higher education – and by liberal I reach to the 18th century – and the pervasive demand for “value” sought bey students, the public and many within the academy. That is the rub, the challenge, and the deep divide in American higher education today.
Stating clearly that higher education is “more than workforce training,” the report emphasizes that knowledgeable citizens require a grounding in history, cultures, humanities, as well as the social and natural sciences. The Task Force stresses that education must be for purposeful work, too, but is challenged to square the circle and make it clear that this two are complementary and not locked in a zero-sum game battle.
Are democratic and civic values, as embodied in a liberal education, compatible with the skills necessary to find gainful employment today? I think that the best we can state is “sometimes” – though many of us hope that the linkages and mutual supports were of greater value. When employers are asked for key skills and attributes in college graduates, critical thinking, applied knowledge, ethical decision-making, complex problem solving and a host of others outrank civic knowledge and participation. In fact, only 52% of employers wanted colleges and universities to place more emphasize on civic learning. One would be hard pressed to argue that employers, as a key stakeholders in higher education, necessarily recognize the value of higher education emphasizing civic engagement.
The report highlights multiple examples of programs, institutions and organizations that have made a commitment to democratic values and civic engagement in both mission and practice. Much is happening and much will continue to happen. But will civic engagement displace other key aims of academia? The struggle on that front has yet to take place.
Part of the conflict, I think, rests in the problem of how higher education thinks about and promotes individuality and democracy in the context of civic engagement. Democratic values elevate the worth and value of the individual. This resonates with all of us, but it can be particularly important to young people who thirst for autonomy and agency. Civic education, while endorsing democratic values, teaches that agency requires hard work, compromise and empathic thinking. More often than not, impact is contingent. In addition, it often re-centers the discussion from the individual to the group, the organization or the system. It is difficult to be engaged and informed about civics and still retain the joyous narcissism of a college student. Any good college education has a similar humbling effect on its graduates, to be sure, but a civic education presents no easy answers or paths. In contrast, a business major at least provides a signal to the market about availability and employment.
Another component in overall civic malaise is the ever-decreasing worth of the concept of “public” when used as an adjective. We may speak of a benefit for the public, but rarely is there much traction today discussing “public” goods. We are suspicious, as a nation, of public goods, though we seem to welcome goods that arrive via the market. Civic thinking is grounded in a different tradition – philosophical, historical and religious – and it is loaded with a commitment to others. These are a hard sell to a public whose lens is individual effort and attainment. In fact, the only recognized source of overlap is the military, which today is often marketed more about personal advancement than as a means of service. Remember the catchphrase “Army of one”?
Where this leave civic engagement and learning? It is clear that civic engagement and democratic values are goods in themselves, worthwhile endeavors poorly equipped to compete in a commodified marketplace. They will retain their worth, however, for they are essential to leadership. We rarely elect or follow anyone who doesn’t understand their importance. And it is here, perhaps, that we will find our next generation of graduates able to think about others in new and important ways.