Iwas born in canada, and my sense of national identity, like that of many Canadians, was formed in direct relation—perhaps in opposition—to the great colossus to the south. We were a country that aspired not to the lofty abstractions of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” but to the more prosaic benefits of “peace, order, and good government.” I have always been proud of Canada’s basic values—but I have also envied the grandeur of the American experiment, even in the face of its shortcomings and contradictions.
When I first came to the United States, in the mid-2000s, I expected, perhaps naively, that this country would be a bastion of civic learning. Surely the stewards of the world’s first modern democracy would understand the need to cultivate an understanding of both its majesty and its mechanics—the Enlightenment ideas that animate it and the institutions that make it work. But when my children enrolled in high school in Philadelphia, they received only a weak introduction to any of this. That modest exposure, however, was far more elaborate than what many other children across the country receive. Two years ago, during a seminar at Johns Hopkins University, I asked my students if any of them had learned about core democratic ideas and institutions in high school. Only a smattering of hands went up—and those few were at half-mast.
The dearth of civic education is corrosive. According to an Associated Press–GfK survey, from 1984 to 2014, the share of American adults who said that staying informed about current affairs and public issues was “not an obligation that a citizen owes to the country” more than tripled, from 6 to 20 percent. Over roughly the same period, according to Cambridge University’s Centre for the Future of Democracy, dissatisfaction with democracy among young people has risen precipitously, particularly in the United States.
For decades, elementary and secondary schools have borne the responsibility of educating about citizenship. But in an era when funding is limited and partisans on all sides are quick to detect the merest whiff of agendas they dislike, civics and social-studies classes are among the first to shrivel. A majority of principals and other school leaders surveyed in 2018 by Education Week believed that students were not getting enough civics education. Often, there is little they can do.
America’s colleges and universities must step into the breach. Almost 70 percent of recent high-school graduates enroll in college each year; they do so at a time in their lives when they are developing habits and convictions that will persist into adulthood. Yet American universities in recent years have shunned responsibility for an education in democracy almost entirely.
There is no single reason for this. The structure of modern universities, which distributes decision making and authority across a host of specialized departments and other stakeholders, including administration, faculty, and governing boards, is surely one factor; this structure often impedes a generalized view of anything, much less education in civics. Debates among academics over how a shared vision of democracy should be taught—or indeed over whether any such vision exists, or could possibly exist, or ought to be taught—also tend to undermine civic efforts before they can even begin.
For these reasons, among others, universities have remained, at best, bit players in the project of educating a democratic citizenry. In truth, they ought to be a bulwark, bolstering a system of self-governance that is more fissured and fragile than at any time in decades.
The trajectory of civic education at American colleges and universities resembles a sine wave: periods of consensus and activity alternating with periods of apathy and distraction.
The nation’s Founders recognized that indifference, ignorance, and prejudice could tear the republic apart. The United States in 1790 boasted fewer than a dozen colleges, and one popular idea shared by many of the Founders was to create a national university. No one believed more fiercely in this project than George Washington, who devoted a fifth of his inaugural State of the Union address to the idea. A national university never came to fruition in quite the way Washington had envisioned. But in the decades after his death, hundreds of colleges sprang up across the American landscape.
Virtually all of them offered a standard curriculum that culminated in a moral philosophy course. Typically taught by the college’s president, that course was designed to give students an opportunity to exercise moral agency, personal autonomy, and debating skills—core capacities of democratic citizenship—by engaging with serious philosophical and political questions. At its best, the course became a conversation among equals, a dynamic captured perfectly by the description, attributed to President James A. Garfield, of the ideal college: Mark Hopkins, the famed president of Williams College, Garfield’s alma mater, “on one end of a log and a student on the other.”