The Forum | General Education

Wise Words from Donald Kagan

September 29, 2014

Former Phillip Merrill Award winner and Yale professor emeritus Donald Kagan took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal this weekend to offer some wise words on the purpose of education in a democracy. It’s a short opinion piece, worth reading through, but here are some of the highlights.

Speaking of Thomas Jefferson and Pericles of Athens, Kagan notes that: “They also agreed on the need for individuals to limit their desires and even to curtail their own rights, when necessary, to make sacrifices in the service of the community without whose protection those rights could not exist. In short, democracy and patriotism were inseparable.” Both, as well, saw education as the way to achieve that level of necessary patriotism, which binds the members of a free society together tightly enough to render differences survivable and disputes solvable. Here’s Kagan again: 

Jefferson meant American education to produce a necessary patriotism. Democracy—of all political systems, because it depends on the participation of its citizens in their own government and because it depends on their own free will to risk their lives in its defense—stands in the greatest need of an education that produces patriotism.

Higher education, in a political system where the people are expected to participate and—in theory—to rule, must be about more than job skills and a boost in income.

Indeed, even Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, who in Aspiring Adults Adrift focus heavily on the sub-par employment of recent graduates, recognize (on page 12) the “role of schools in socializing students for adult roles in society.” They also take the limited civic engagement of young people today as one indicator of delayed adulthood, which speaks to the widespread expectation that higher education deliver more than hard skills and the ability to think critically.

Some might worry that instilling patriotism on campus would amount to advocating a particular view of what is good for society or the nation. But, Kagan clarifies that this is not his meaning:

Many have been the attacks on patriotism for intolerance, arrogance and bellicosity, but that is to equate it with its bloated distortion, chauvinism. My favorite dictionary defines the latter as “militant and boastful devotion to and glorification of one’s country,” but defines a patriot as “one who loves, supports, and defends his country.”

So, patriotism for Kagan is not a blind devotion to one’s country, or penchant for military action, but a sincere interest in the well-being of the society one belongs to and a willingness to engage with civic institutions to influence the direction of that society. Without a basic understanding of the value and importance of civic engagement, it is unlikely that a busy modern person would take the time to engage in this process. Just look at how few young people turn out to vote, even when it’s made painfully easy for them.

But the problem goes beyond even the lack of U.S. history or government classes that might provide a basic understanding of these institutions and processes. Kagan notes that:

We in the academic community have too often engaged in miseducation. If we encourage separatism, we will get separation and the terrible conflict in society it will bring. If we encourage rampant individualism to trample on the need for a community and common citizenship, if we ignore civic education, the forging of a single people, the building of a legitimate patriotism, we will have selfish individuals, heedless of the needs of others, the war of all against all, the reluctance to work toward the common good and to defend our country when defense is needed.     

Academics will of course, always disagree with one another to some extent. But the inability of colleges to foster a basic sense of unity and of civic pride exacerbates the sharp divisions that are dividing our society. This lends itself to the vitriol and inability to listen to one another driving calls for imposed civility and for increasingly insular campus communities. Academe must take heed of Kagan’s timely call for a renewed commitment to fulfill the expectation that higher education prepare students to be citizens as well as scholars.    


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