Commentaries
American Colleges Are Forgetting to Teach Citizenship

By Wilfred M. McClay

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January 20, 2016

Over a long teaching career, I have seen a lot of change in our colleges and universities—some of it good, but much of it not. In the not-good category I would put the decline of our commitment to educate our young people for American citizenship.

Those of us old enough to remember the 1970s recall the crisis higher education was then facing. The stupendous growth of colleges and universities in the post-World War II-era was coming to an end and the future looked grim. 

But American higher education did not curl up and die. It didn’t even shrink. Instead, it maintained and added to its bulk, including a steadily growing flow of foreign students (more on them later).

It did what businesses always do when supply outstrips demand: it found, exploited, and even created new markets for its goods, meaning new students.

The resulting gains in access to higher education and genuine diversity in the student body have on balance been a real advance. But our redefinition of higher education has also presented us with certain dilemmas, and these must be faced up to.

For example, we need to pay more attention to the internationalization of the American academy, including the steadily growing number of foreign students in our universities. Those students represent a source of much-needed enrollment and  tuition revenues. Their presence gives enlivening variety to our campuses, exposing the American-born to a taste of the larger world. What is not to like about that? 

For one thing, as educational researchers such as Chris R. Glass of Old Dominion University and Elizabeth Gareis of Baruch College have reported, our universities are doing a terrible job with the integration of their international students. Between the cross-cultural inadequacies of native-born students and the self-congregating tendencies of foreign students, the result in many cases has been an increasingly tense and anomic campus life.

And there is another side to the integration problem, involving not only the neglect of international students, but also the neglect of the institutional mission of any American college or university: the formation of young people into fully informed and fully equipped citizens of the United States, knowledgeable about their own history and institutions.

A personal story will help to make that point.

Several years ago, I spent a year as a visiting professor at a small graduate school that was oriented toward public policy. Its course offerings and faculty reflected the kind of task-oriented training that public sector employers want from prospective employees. But the school also had a prescribed sequence of courses that sought to teach students about the philosophical and constitutional grounding of American society. 

The school was also highly tuition-dependent and had reached deeply into the foreign-student pool. Those students were something of a life preserver. But while their presence enlivened the classroom, their presence also constrained what I was able to accomplish.

Instead of teaching my students how to intelligently appropriate the knowledge and traditions and historical memories of America, I found it necessary to teach as if those traditions were to be regarded neutrally, a view from nowhere carrying no inherent weight. The classes had become something different from what the school had intended them to be. 

My experience impressed upon me that, in addition to the ideological and political constraints facing professors today, the presence of an international classroom and student body also forms a serious constraint, particularly with a view toward helping our students come into a fuller ownership of their civilizational heritage. 

Thus does an admissions policy that swells the balance sheet but takes no account of the school’s larger mission run the risk of undermining the institution’s very reason for being. 

That teaching experience relates to a much more general problem I see in American higher education.

The idea that higher education should teach about citizenship goes back to our beginnings. Thomas Jefferson’s 1818 Report of the Commissioners for the University of Virginia called for each citizen “to understand his duties to his neighbors and country, and to discharge with competence the functions confided to him by either” and “to know his rights; to exercise with order and justice those he retains; to choose with discretion the fiduciary of those he delegates; and to notice their conduct with diligence, with candor, and judgment.” 

But the ideological tides have shifted dramatically and education for American citizenship is viewed skeptically. Some now question whether that should be a central part of what our colleges try to provide—or any part. 

The influential philosopher Martha Nussbaum has argued that patriotism itself is an inferior sentiment, and that “patriotic pride is both morally dangerous and, ultimately, subversive of some of the worthy goals patriotism sets out to serve—for example, the goal of national unity in devotion to worthy moral ideals of justice and equality.”

Such goals, she argued, “would be better served by...the very old ideal of the cosmopolitan, the person whose allegiance is to the worldwide community of human beings.” It is the job of the university, she argues, to instill that ideal, and in so doing, displace the dangerous idols of the nation-state.

Nussbaum offers as an exemplar of the cosmopolitan ideal the figure of Diogenes the Cynic, who was said to have answered anyone who asked what city-state he came from, by gruffly declaring “I am a citizen of the world.” He heroically declined, Nussbaum says, to identify himself with the accidents of birth, “his local origins and group memberships, so central to the self-image of the conventional Greek male; instead, he defined himself in terms of more universal aspirations and concerns.”

We are urged to do the same, and to educate our young along similar lines.

Her view dovetails with the emerging reality of Ben Wildavsky’s transnational “global university,” whose smooth surfaces have no place for the expression of national identity, or for the inculcation of the civic consciousness and community of historical memory that have hitherto been thought to be essential elements in the makeup of any decent and responsible political society, particular one founded in republican or democratic institutions.

The rise of that view should be a matter of grave concern.

For while cosmopolitanism may be the preferred mode of affiliation for academic intellectuals and international businessmen, it is not an ideal that encourages the perpetuation of deep loyalties and the willingness to sacrifice and bear others’ burdens. It is not an ideal that imposes demanding civic duties, grounded in the concrete realities of ordinary life in real families, communities, and political society.

The problem with cosmopolitanism is not with the more expansive world it opens to us, but with the more proximate world it encourages us to neglect.

We give far too little attention to the kind of citizens required by our free and republican form of government. Nor do we give sufficient attention to the institutions and narratives by which we form the minds and hearts and spirits of each successive generation of citizens.

In short, we have come to ignore what has always been understood as a primary goal of education: the formation of reflective and responsible citizens.

We are paying the price for that neglect today. All too many Americans, even nominally well-educated ones, do not understand their own political and economic systems, and are appallingly ignorant of the American past. They are bereft of any sense of love for, or profound connection to, their own nation and its traditions. 

Needless to say, such citizens will have neither the intelligence nor the heart to meet the rigorous challenges of a very demanding future. We will have to do better, and start doing so very soon, if we are to maintain a republican form of government.

 


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