Leadership is all the rage at elite colleges and universities. Students are not only admitted because of their “leadership potential,” but are congratulated on being “leaders in the making” before they show up to their first class. Admission is proof enough, it seems, that this potential will become actual. Yet such “leadership” is often about resume building and piling up dizzying credentials that have little if anything to do with genuine leadership, particularly of a civic variety. Worse, as William Deresiewicz argues in Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite, what passes for leadership at elite colleges may reflect their self-congratulatory impulses, encouraging a mindset at odds with the traits of genuine leadership. Yes, there are examples of true leadership at these institutions, and certainly students who will go on to be leaders. There is also genuine civic commitment. Yet when it comes to civics, students are increasingly likely to be putting their minds to problems in Uganda and Mongolia rather than to problems confronting America.
It was not always so. In his elegant little book College, Andrew Delbanco notes that the modern elite college and university have only an indirect sense of their public obligations, particularly compared to their past incarnations. Increasingly, the careerist and commercial ends of education threaten to eclipse the broader mission of higher education and obscure its link to democracy. The embrace of careerism has been most evident at leading public universities, but it’s also a potent force at elite colleges long know for their commitment to liberal arts education. The Board of Overseers at the University of Virginia recently tried to force the president out for not speaking enough to the practical aims of university education, most notably with regard to online education and its newest fad, MOOCS (Massive Open Online Courses). The Rector of the board, a political appointee, thought it was high time to rethink the mission of Mr. Jefferson’s University in the 21st century. The Board of Governors at the University of North Carolina (which claims to be the oldest public university in America), urged on by a state governor who has been dismissive of liberal arts education, is looking to eliminate departments and areas of learning to suit market “demand.” According to several members of the board, education is about jobs. Politicians, too, speak as if getting a job was the sole aim of college education. Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin recently tried to remove language about citizenship and the pursuit of knowledge from the University of Wisconsin’s mission statement and replace it with “meeting the state’s workforce needs.” (Walker has since said this was a misunderstanding.) Senator Marco Rubio dismissed the study of Greek philosophy given its apparent job prospects. We frequently hear this sort of criticism of the liberal arts. Never mind that this dismissal of liberal arts is misguided even in careerist and market terms. My guess is these folks, dismissive of liberal education as they are, are unfamiliar with Montesquieu’s famous line on the crucial link between education and republican government.
The creators of America’s republican government were acutely aware of the link. So much so that they argued for the establishment of a national university to nurture and sustain the republic they created. The idea of a national university was widespread during the founding era. To list the advocates of a national university is to name the seminal political and educational figures of the day: George Washington, Benjamin Rush, Noah Webster, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and both John and John Quincy Adams. They justified the idea of a national university in civic terms: it 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. As George Washington asked in proposing a national university: “a primary object of such a National Institution should be, the education of our Youth in the science of Government. In a Republic, what species of knowledge can be equally important? And what duty, more pressing on its Legislature, than to patronize a plan for communicating it to those, who are to be the future guardians of the liberties of the Country?”
Yet this was not a public policy program, a Kennedy or Wilson School for the founding generation. On the contrary, knowledge itself, particularly detached from theological orthodoxy, was believed to be essential to the republic. University education of a wide-ranging sort was necessary to sustain a broader way of life that included things we do not usually associate with government: science, commerce, literature, and the arts, for example. In his first formal call to establish a national university, Washington insisted that nothing deserved Congress’s patronage more than “the promotion of science and literature,” as knowledge itself contributed to a “free constitution.” Congress agreed, with both the Senate and House passing resolutions of support that echoed Washington’s thought: “literature and science are essential to the preservation of a free constitution.” In the founders’ eyes, successful political institutions depended on culture and ideas, which depended on education.
Contrary to what we are so often taught, the leading minds from the founding generation, who also happened to be the advocates of a national university, did not think the Constitution was a “machine that would go of itself.” Acute students of history, they were deeply aware that political institutions degenerate and decay. (We might do well to recall that James Russell Lowell’s memorable phrase comes from an address preoccupied by political decay that warns against this sentiment.) The national university would supplement America’s political institutions by fostering a healthy civil society. As Jefferson put it, education will “form the statesmen, legislators and judges, on whom public prosperity and individual happiness are so much to depend.” Education of the sort offered at the national university would shape the public mind and forge a spirited leadership class to carry the American experiment forward.
A recent report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences commissioned by Congress, the Heart of the Matter, similarly insists that education is “the keeper of the republic.” But how do American colleges and universities contribute to maintaining American democracy in the early years of the 21st century? At its best, liberal arts education is defended as training for democratic citizenship. The virtues of liberal education mirror the characteristics required of democratic citizens: the ability to grasp and evaluate arguments and evidence and to articulate and defend ideas in a reasoned manner. And so it may be. Yet is teaching reasoning and critical thinking enough? Does it foster civic understandings and commitments? Do we need more specific knowledge of American liberal democracy: its institutions, history, and culture? An understanding of the past may be crucial to the present and future of American democracy.
America’s history is bound up with its civic identity. As The Heart of the Matter observes, American democracy depends on a “shared knowledge of history, civics, and social studies,” and “the humanities remind us where we have been and help us envision where we are going.” This thinking runs back to the idea for a national university. Even prior to the establishment of the Constitution, Noah Webster was berating his fellow citizens for not knowing their history: insofar as we don’t know our history, we lack knowledge of ourselves. This thinking was also behind the creation of the Core Curriculum in the 20th century at places such as Harvard and Columbia. In the middle years of the 20th century, the famous Harvard report, General Education in a Free Society, insisted, “It is impossible to escape the realization that our society, like any society, rests on common beliefs and that a major task of education is to perpetuate them.” The curriculum, accordingly, aimed to nourish the “general art of the free man and the citizen” by teaching the habits of mind and character that were necessary to civic life. The Core, still taught at Columbia, grew out of a desire to foster a shared history and civic consciousness against the division of world war. Such courses, as Louis Menand reminds us, often began as thinly veiled propaganda. But they also forced educators to think more fully about the place of American democracy within the curriculum (and within history more generally). Courses in history, philosophy, literature, and politics would provide a common basis of knowledge. One could have many complaints about the parochial nature of these institutions in their earlier years, and about the Core in particular, but they did impart a sense of public duty.
Even if we are skeptical that American democracy stands on some shared civic identity, there is a compelling argument that knowledge of American history, politics, and culture is essential to students’ futures as America’s leaders. Recently in these pages, Francis Fukuyama argued that we don’t see America’s current institutional decay clearly because we lack a historical perspective on it. Even if we take an entirely pragmatic approach to the current issues that beset America, a sense of the past is essential to grappling with the present. Should illegal immigrants be given a path to citizenship? Does the health care mandate as applied to religious organizations violate religious liberty? Does increasing inequality threaten American democracy? Will persistent budget deficits and government debt bankrupt America? Is the common core harmful to education? Is the American separation of powers dysfunctional? Come up with nearly any question you want. Can we have a meaningful public debate about such vexing issues—never mind find plausible solutions to them—without a fairly robust understanding American history, institutions, and culture?
For all the talk of leadership at elite colleges and universities these days, do they provide the sort of knowledge and cultivate the mindset essential to the tasks of public leadership? Most leading institutions of higher education have in common the aim of developing a set of critical skills—critical thinking and writing in particular. Looking at the top ten universities and liberal arts colleges, as ranked by U.S. News (and, yes, such rankings are a problem in their own right), many do this by way of breadth and distribution requirements: students must take a range of courses outside their particular area of study. Others have core requirements, where students must take interdisciplinary courses that are meant to introduce them to Western civilization, literature, philosophy, and the like, with some requiring the study of other civilizations or cultures.
Now it may well be, as Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber argues, that the civic traits we depend on in a liberal democracy—critical thought, deliberation, and toleration, for instance—will indeed be cultivated by way of general liberal education. There is a happy convergence between liberal values and liberal education. As Eisgruber puts it, “liberal democratic government is in many respects an effort to constitute the political order on the same terms that govern rational speech.” The liberal arts curriculum will naturally inculcate the critical rationality we depend on in a liberal democracy; therefore, specific courses in American history, politics, or literature are unnecessary. General courses in philosophy, science, economics, history, politics, and so forth will do just fine.
Most leading universities and liberal arts colleges implicitly seem to share President Eisgruber’s sense that a range of liberal arts taught in a critical manner will impart the skills and traits necessary to sustain democracy. Most of these institutions speak of cultivating leadership and citizenship. My own institution, Claremont McKenna College, specifically attaches responsible leadership to liberal education. Others specifically mention, as part of their general education requirements, civic engagement. Duke University lists civic engagement as an essential part of its curriculum, while Harvard seeks to prepare students for civic life, and Bowdoin College mentions reflective citizenship as part of its overall mission. The University of Pennsylvania has even begun a new program, the President’s Engagement Prizes, which will fully fund a local, national, or global engagement project in the year after graduation. The goal is specifically to put student’s knowledge to “work for the betterment of humankind.” At some of these institutions, there are also centers or programs that highlight the link between democracy and education, such as Yale’s Center for the Study of Representative Institutions and UCLA’s Center for Liberal Arts and Free Institutions.
Yet none of the top-ranked universities or colleges has a specifically required course in American government, history, literature, or culture. To be sure, such courses are taught at all these colleges and universities, and one can get an excellent education along these lines, but they are not a required part of the curriculum. Indeed, a handful of these elite colleges and universities require a course in “global citizenship” or in preparation for “global life” instead. Carleton College has a global citizenship requirement, Stanford University notes the importance of preparing students for global citizenship, and Haverford College has a Center for Peace and Global Citizenship. Such requirements, along with the diversity requirement at Williams College and the requirement for courses across cultures and civilizations at Middlebury College, may well be in keeping with a broad liberal education that naturally has a cosmopolitan element. Understanding different cultures and modes of thinking, the alternatives to the world we inhabit, is a crucial part of liberal education. In considering the nations of the “Globe” and the “characters and customs which distinguish them,” James Madison insisted on the educational benefits of such knowledge in the early 19th century: “An acquaintance with foreign Countries in this mode, has a kindred effect with that of seeing them as travellers, which never fails, in uncorrupted minds, to weaken local prejudices, and enlarge the sphere of benevolent feelings.”
In the same way that global concerns have been integrated into the curriculum, colleges and universities might re-integrate, so to speak, courses in American history, politics, literature, and culture that speak to American civic life. Many in higher education will think that civic education is the province of primary and secondary education, or that it smacks too much of sentimental patriotic attachment at odds with the rationality at which higher education aims. Yet civic education can be integrated into liberal education in ways that are good for both education and democracy. Courses on the features of American liberal democracy can be taught in what William Galston dubs an “investigative” rather than “inculcative” manner. Such a mode would “adopt the American regime as its point of departure while problematizing it as an object of inquiry.” Courses that focus on American history and civic institutions would introduce students to essential concepts—liberalism, democracy, rights, representation, equality, separation of powers, federalism, the rule of law, administration—and how they have played out over the course of American history. But they would also invite students to think critically about these different issues. Civic knowledge is essential to thoughtful civic participation—whether the matter at hand is the Voting Rights Act of 1965, immigration, the place of religion in public schools, same-sex marriage, or Congressional redistricting.
Knowing the history and principles of the American polity is a first step in thinking about and applying political principles to contemporary issues. Grasping the historical antecedents of many contemporary issues may well elevate contemporary democratic discourse. This also includes criticizing pieces (or the whole) of American democracy. Studying our country, we will find that its great champions have often been its most stringent critics, pointing out how it has failed to live up to its promise. Think of Abraham Lincoln, Fredrick Douglass or Susan B. Anthony. And even as “investigative” civic education seeks to instill civic commitments, it is a reasoned project that can be situated within a broad liberal education. Courses in the history of political philosophy and the history, culture, and languages of other countries would also be useful features of civic education. Indeed, a course in comparative constitutionalism may be the most illuminating way to study America insofar as it brings to light both what is unique and what is universal within American democracy. As Seymour Martin Lipset has argued, “it is impossible to understand a country without seeing how it varies from others. Those who know only one country know no country.” The study of America could complement and deepen liberal education, including the global perspective many colleges view as essential to education in the 21st century.
Elite students—at both public and private colleges and universities—who will shape American institutions and culture ought to have a rudimentary education in the American polity, to make them culturally literate individuals able to contribute to civic life in meaningful ways. (Indeed, there is a strong case to be made that students at all institutions both need and deserve such an education.) Interestingly, the schools that best serve this politically educative function today may be elite law schools and public policy schools. In focusing on current constitutional questions and questions of civic and public policy, these schools inevitably, if indirectly, offer an education in the history and theory of American liberal democracy. They educate an elite that goes into public office, governmental service, and civic and public life more generally. Yet aspects of this education focus on professional development, which sits uneasily alongside a more robust sense of civic life. This is particularly so with law schools, which tend to create a professional legalistic understanding of public affairs that can be profoundly at odds with wider civic engagement.
Indeed, pre-professionalism has begun to creep into undergraduate education in ways that threaten to overshadow civic and liberal education. This development is a key reason why leadership as understood and practiced at elite educational institutions risks being engulfed by careerism—by material success, which is not quite the same as leadership. This narrow view may be the biggest threat to the sort of education essential to democracy. Ironically, the economic success of American democracy may itself be the reason for this threat to our civic health. To be sure, parents and students ought to be concerned about career prospects, particularly given the high cost of college. Assurances that graduates will thrive materially are not all bad. Colleges and universities should take it on themselves to educate parents and students along these lines: the evidence overwhelming suggests that students who graduate from elite institutions with a liberal arts focus thrive in career and material terms. More importantly, though, educational institutions must insist that the market is not the most important measure of education. When Madison ventured that “learned institutions ought to be favorite objects with every free people” and proceeded to list their numerous benefits, getting a job did not make the list.
I don’t want to overstate this careerist ethos. The idea that students at our leading institutions are “excellent sheep” is overwrought. Students are bright, eager, thirsting for knowledge, and loaded with questions—and questions about things that matter, like what things matter? They are also ambitious and imaginative in thinking about how their knowledge will make the world a better place. This is evident to anyone who has spent a small amount of time on an elite college campus. Yet, just as surely, there are students who have a “me-first” attitude and define getting ahead as having a career that makes them piles of money. (Ask all those students why they go into finance, increasingly the career choice of students at top schools.) These are often students whose most searching question is “how do I get an A in this class?” They have little interest in liberal education as such, little concern with civic things, and could be characterized as leaders only in the sense that they’ve made it this far—this far being, they’ve gotten into an excellent college and are doing reasonably well there. This, too, is obvious to anyone who has spent much time on a college campus. Elite higher education is a mixed bag. Both of these mindsets exist on college campuses. If the charge that they are producing status-seeking automatons is exaggerated and off the mark, it nonetheless forces colleges to engage in self-reflection, pushing against their self-congratulatory tendencies. This last, alas, is pervasive: colleges persistently remind students how excellent they are. They got in, didn’t they? But this doesn’t make them knowledgeable or leaders, let alone knowledgeable leaders.
American democracy depends on generally knowledgeable citizens, but it does not count on them to be professional historians, constitutional scholars, or experts in public affairs. This says something important about the nature of American democracy: most people will be busy in private life. The people whom Edmund Burke called “the less inquiring” with regard to public affairs are likely to take cues on civic questions from the ideas generated by political and intellectual leaders. Yet this is just why we depend on elite institutions to provide the virtues of such leadership: the people, preoccupied by private life, are unlikely to do the heavy lifting on civic questions. Preserving American democracy depends anew on each generation: it requires, in Burke’s words, “much thought, deep reflection, a sagacious, powerful, and combing mind.” Liberal education cultivates this frame of mind.
Today we are confronted with partisan divisions and institutional decay that bring the health of American democracy into doubt. Our educational institutions, driven more and more by careerist concerns and the market, may compound the troublesome effects of self-interested institutions rather than softening them. The idea of a national university was a means of cultivating political and civic leaders, almost a hedge against self-interest. In a similar fashion, contemporary students might be lured away from excessively careerist and commercial concerns by way of civic education. Our educational institutions could turn to the American past to help teach today’s students what Alexis de Tocqueville famously called “self-interest rightly understood.” In just this way, the American heritage may be used to save Americans from themselves.