Lecture explores role of higher education in preparing students for democratic citizenship

On the eve of Election Day, Notre Dame’s Constitutional Studies Minor hosted George Thomas, Professor of American Political Institutions at Claremont McKenna College, to deliver a lecture entitled “Saving America From Itself: The Uneasy Place of Civic Education in American Colleges.” Thomas discussed the evolution of civic education in American colleges to its current status and shared his views on its place in the future.

Thomas began by noting that society generally recognizes some link between universities in the United States and its republican form of government. He cited a recent report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the mission statements of many elite colleges as evidence that universities often seek to “[cultivate] civic engagement.” Thomas argued, however, that how universities perform this service is unclear and that there is an “uneasiness” as to the exact place civic education should have in higher education.

Thomas suggested two key ideas that might cause this uneasiness. The beliefs that liberal democracy is “neutral with regard to substantive moral, political, and philosophical commitments” and that “the contemporary university and college … [are] in some sense, committed to a marketplace of ideas” both contribute to the current tension between universities and civic education, he said.

According to Thomas, we should reject the idea of neutrality, and American universities should commit themselves to certain “moral and political understandings,” such as individual rights and equality. He examined how many of the Founding Fathers supported taking a stand in regard to democratic principles and believed that higher education was critical in promoting these principles.

Continuing his discussion of the Founding Fathers, Thomas said that many of them believed that higher education was so critical that they supported the establishment of a national university. This university would “cultivate the habits and mindset in citizens and public officers—Madison referred to ‘national feelings,’ ‘liberal sentiments,’ and ‘congenial manners’—necessary to America’s republican experiment.” While Thomas clarified that he was not necessarily looking to adopt the ideas of the Founding Fathers, he emphasized that we could learn from the inquiry into the relationship between civic education and universities.   

The lecture then shifted to civic education in universities today. Rather than focusing on a broad liberal education, Thomas argued that universities today are increasingly more careerist. He cited examples of politicians from Senator Marco Rubio to President Barack Obama justifying college by its economic return. He also referred to several states, including Wisconsin and North Carolina, that sought to tailor their public universities specifically to address the needs of the workforce. While Thomas expressed understanding for this careerism due to the high cost of college, he said how, in addition to being economically beneficial, a liberal arts education is “training ground for democratic citizenship.”

Thomas said that preparing students for democratic citizenship is crucial to the success of American democracy, which is more “fragile than we tend to think.” He argued that each generation of Americans must tackle its own set of questions, ranging from the efficacy of delaying confirmation of Supreme Court justices to the preservation of religious liberty. While Thomas acknowledged that many skills that make up civic education are developed by liberal education, he also claimed that many colleges are currently seeing departure from these skills due to increased careerism. Therefore, he reaffirmed that colleges should specifically focus on developing skills needed for civic engagement.

To end his lecture, Thomas discussed the difficulty of teaching civic education and American history while maintaining critical thinking and the principles of liberal education. He cited Daniel Webster and his book Little Reader’s Assistant to show that it is possible to teach about American civic education in a “manner that is consisted with real liberal education.”

Thomas then took questions from the audience on various topics, including whether there should be limits on inquiry in civic education, whether there is a “hierarchy” among liberal arts subjects, and what exactly make up democratic principles and virtues.

Overall, students reacted positively to the lecture. Senior Henry Dickman told the Rover, “In an age where education is judged primarily by its financial returns, it’s refreshing to hear that our schooling is really about something greater than our careers.”