Universities Are Shunning Their Responsibility to Democracy

Institutions of higher education have remained, at best, bit players in the project of educating the citizenry.

Illustration of an American flag.
Dina Litovsky / Redux

I was 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.

Book cover of What Universities Owe Democracy.
This post is adapted from Daniels’ forthcoming book.

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.”

With the rise of research universities in the 1870s, schools turned away from moral philosophy and toward newly ascendant disciplines such as political science, economics, and sociology. Course catalogs swelled with new offerings in American government and history. Yet in this era of ever-multiplying fields and highly specialized courses, there was little guarantee that future chemists or engineers, or indeed any specialists, would reap the benefit of courses outside their chosen areas. Abraham Flexner, the prominent chronicler of higher education, noted pointedly that when it came to “civic and human relations,” colleges and universities left students at the mercy of “accident, habit, and prejudice.”

Global catastrophe brought a response. In 1918, as the United States ramped up participation in the war effort, some 500 colleges and universities were transformed into de facto military-training centers. Enlisted students at these schools were required to take “War Issues,” a new course designed to survey the political, economic, and philosophical underpinnings of the conflict. World War I ended two months after the course was launched, but nearly 300 institutions continued offering it for the remainder of the academic year.

That was the first stirring of what came to be called the general-education movement, which aimed to restore to college and university curricula a shared educational experience. Throughout the interwar years, university presidents across the country collaborated closely with faculty to design required courses focused on democratic citizenship. The most celebrated and enduring of these is surely the “Contemporary Civilization” sequence at Columbia University, which began in 1919 and continues to this day.

The Second World War amplified this commitment. In 1945, a committee formed by Harvard’s president, James B. Conant, produced the surprise national best seller General Education in a Free Society, which sought to define a common set of understandings and capacities to equip students for citizenship in a democracy. A year later, a national commission on higher education that had been convened by President Harry S. Truman declared that the “first and most essential charge upon higher education is that at all levels and in all its fields of specialization, it shall be the carrier of democratic values, ideals, and process.” By 1950, nearly half of all colleges and universities in the country had adopted a general-education program, most with an explicit focus on democratic citizenship.

That success was cut short by the Cold War’s race for scientific dominance, along with a university ecosystem that, more and more, prized path-breaking discovery and unfettered faculty autonomy. By 1960, general education was, according to the writer Alston Chase, “in full retreat.” Throughout the ’60s, the activism and social concern of the civil-rights era mostly found expression outside the classroom. Yet in the ’70s and into the ’80s, the watchword on campus was careerism, not idealism.

By the mid-’80s, a rising chorus of voices sought to prove that colleges and universities could shake off civic apathy. In 1985, the presidents of Brown, Georgetown, Stanford, and other schools formed Campus Compact, a coalition of colleges and universities devoted to promoting community service. In time, that commitment evolved into “service learning,” which combines local community engagement with classroom study. Today, hundreds of institutes, centers, and offices of service learning operate at colleges and universities across the country. Campus Compact’s membership has grown from 102 institutions in 1986 to more than a thousand in 2019.

The impact of service education has been unequivocally positive. Students who engage in service-learning opportunities in college are more likely to volunteer throughout their postcollegiate lives; to be more tolerant toward others; and to demonstrate leadership in their communities. But service learning, on its own, is not an education in democracy. It generally does not seek to explain why democratic values matter or to ask hard questions, such as why democracies have fallen short of the values they proclaim. It is not designed to nurture affinity for democracy as a system of popular governance. And it does not aim to provide students with the knowledge necessary to engage with or reshape democratic institutions. Service learning has, in this one respect, become a crutch: a way for university presidents to celebrate civic engagement without explicitly having to provide a civic education.

I began my own career during the heyday of service learning. After the implosion of the communist world, beginning in 1989, when thinkers such as Francis Fukuyama were confidently declaring the historical inevitability of liberal democracy, focusing civic-learning efforts on community service made sense. Universities did an admirable job at helping train a generation of socially engaged citizens. Yet I and many others had blithely assumed that students had an adequate understanding of democratic citizenship. They did not. Our civic initiatives were built not on a bedrock of democratic knowledge but on sand.

Inertia is a familiar aspect of academic life. For better or worse, colleges and universities are institutions that prize careful, prolonged deliberation. They resist change. They are innately skeptical of reform. This is true not only of consequential matters but of trivial ones—recall the description by Clark Kerr, who served more than half a century ago as the influential president of the University of California system, of the modern university as a collection of “individual entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over parking.”

But universities are capable of making bold and innovative changes when there is sufficient will. During my own career, I have had the privilege of seeing and participating in efforts to create significantly more opportunities for first-generation and low-income students; to pioneer cutting-edge research programs in fields such as artificial intelligence and vaccine development; and to forge deeper partnerships between universities and the communities of which they are a part. Each of these efforts had significant obstacles to surmount.

Making education for democracy a core element of higher education’s mission will face its own obstacles, and maybe tougher ones. Chief among them will be the political and ideological divisions, often bitter and unyielding, that can turn any conversation about common values into a ferocious encounter. But we are at a rare moment when the left and the right seem to be aligned behind the idea that more civic education is crucial.

Sonia Sotomayor and Neil Gorsuch, who don’t agree on much, are both pressing the case. A bipartisan bill under consideration in Congress proposes a $1 billion investment in civic education. And colleges and universities in red and blue states alike have begun to take up the cause. Purdue University recently instituted a new civic-literacy requirement for graduation; state legislatures in Florida and Missouri have passed laws requiring something similar for public-university students. Stanford has launched a pilot course for first-year students called “Citizenship in the 21st Century” as part of a proposed new core curriculum. At my own school, Johns Hopkins, faculty across the university, with the support of the SNF Agora Institute, have started to seed democracy-themed courses throughout the curriculum. These efforts may be starting to pay off: The Annenberg Public Policy Center found that more Americans in 2021 reported having taken a course focused on the U.S. government and the Constitution during college than at any time in the past decade.

As these examples illustrate, education for democracy can take many forms, and there is great value in that. No matter its form, the civic education we provide should be encompassing and evenhanded. Studying historical texts from the archives of democracy, for instance, is just as important as practicing the art of peaceful protest to enact change. Neither is inherently reactionary nor inherently radical—both are indisputably democratic. Likewise, civic education should incorporate a rigorous investigation of the ways in which the democratic experiment—in the United States and elsewhere—has fulfilled aspirations. But it should also recognize the ways in which democracy has fallen tragically short. Above all, it should provide students with the knowledge and tools to renew democracy’s promise.

One thing we do know: Civic education works. Study after study has shown that civic education at all levels of schooling—including at the college level—instills a sense of political agency and compensates for what students may not always get at home. In 2019, the sociologists Andrew J. Perrin and Alanna Gillis showed empirically not only that college education is a strong predictor of future democratic participation but also that students who take a social-sciences class in particular are more likely to vote. There appears to be an analogous connection at the national level. Countries listed by the Varieties of Democracy project as the strongest democracies in the world (for instance, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Estonia) are also among those in which young people possess the greatest civic knowledge, as assessed by the International Civic and Citizenship Education Study.

Colleges and universities are indispensable to the democratic project. Besides educating citizens, they are among the institutions in our society with the greatest capacity to launch students from marginalized or under-resourced backgrounds up the social ladder. They are stewards of fact and curators of knowledge. They are seedbeds of pluralism, bringing together students and teachers from all parts of society. As institutions, they are interwoven with democracy’s ends and values.

Renewing their obligation to democracy will require not only work but also risk and imagination. Presidents, deans, and faculty leaders across the country must champion the cause. It is worth the fight for a simple reason: Our democracy may depend on it.

This post is adapted from Daniels’s forthcoming book, What Universities Owe Democracies.