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A civic assignment for higher ed?

American higher education is being called upon to address a formidable array of issues. Budgets and student debt loom large, along with the related challenges of improving graduation rates and embracing diversity. Other issues, including athletic complexities in many institutions, add to the mix. But current circumstances suggest the importance of adding one more basic item: an appropriate role in dealing with the nation’s civic crisis – or if crisis is too strong a word, destructive disarray.

Polls suggest that a majority of Americans, from otherwise diverse political camps, agree that the nation is not doing well, despite an arguably strong economy. And the issues did not simply begin in 2016. Deep divisions and mutual hostilities, policy paralysis, deteriorating longevity rates, rising incidence of drug abuse and suicide, increased individual isolation oddly exacerbated by social media – the symptoms are numerous and varied, even aside from environmental challenges. One can debate the severity of the situation and argue about how it compares to previous pressure points in the nation’s history, but something is clearly wrong.

Higher education did not cause this situation and surely cannot alone resolve it. But it is legitimate to ask if the problems have won sufficient attention, amid all the brave talk of responsible innovation on other fronts. Are we encouraging our students to engage not only with the specific issues but with the greater need for forging a constructive civic climate?

Challenges are obvious. Again, there are a number of other pressing problems demanding attention. Partisanship greatly complicates response – universities are already suspected of disproportionate liberalism (though this is not always an accurate charge), and there is no question that developing an educational response across party lines will be difficult.
But there is another problem as well. The emphases that have seemed most successful recently in demonstrating universities’ economic utility – the importance of STEM disciplines for job preparation, and the rhetoric that has accompanied this pragmatic approach – are not adequately comprehensive in dealing with our civic challenges.

And here, inevitably, a few disclaimers. I am a historian, and so self-interested, and like many colleagues in the humanities and soft social sciences have been concerned about an overemphasis on STEM and first job preparation on other grounds as well.

At the same time, STEM disciplines unquestionably have an important role in any educational response to current national challenges. Important, but not exclusive (as most STEM faculty will quickly agree). For if we’re discussing civic ethics, conflict resolution, social isolation and the deterioration of community life, we clearly need some mix from the humanities and social sciences (including but not confined to economics) as well.

This does not mean simply business as usual for the liberal arts. An educational agenda that addresses the civic crisis surely needs a serious revamping of narrow specializations and disciplinary isolation, in favor of some truly innovative discussions on crafting a curriculum appropriate to our present dilemmas. We may in some cases need an online component, to complement more technical training. Older arguments about the importance of the liberal arts still resonate, but the current mission is more specific and in many ways more challenging.

There is no denying the complexity involved. Avoiding sheer partisanship is not easy, as we already know from the fraught conversations about intolerance and political correctness. Opening curricular boxes, including appropriate segments of the core or general education sector, is never easy. Even designing or tweaking relevant minors takes imagination, particularly in cutting across disciplinary lines. Justifying an effort that, while not contradicting job preparation embraces different and less precise goals, may sometimes be a hard sell. At the same time, figuring out ways to engage students around the pressing civic dilemmas may generate new excitement as well.

One starts with commitments and priorities, from administrators and faculty alike. We need to be talking about higher education’s role in civic improvement (including of course teacher preparation, which is currently flagging) with the same urgency currently being applied to the employment mission. Jobs are unquestionably important, in STEM fields and beyond, but their value will decrease if we cannot also seriously address a weakened society. Higher education should explicitly accept a mission here.