Trustees | General Education

College students, professors could benefit from civics lessons

LANCASTER ONLINE   |  June 6, 2016 by April Kelly-Woessner

A number of journalists, social scientists and political leaders have lamented the dismal state of America’s political discourse in recent months.

Americans are becoming less politically tolerant; they are increasingly unwilling to allow their foes to speak freely. On college campuses, speakers are often silenced, so that their views never enter the “marketplace of ideas.”

In two recent columns in The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof made a compelling argument that intellectual diversity would benefit universities and that liberals in academe should exercise the same sort of tolerance for political diversity as they do for racial and ethnic diversity.Yet the problem is not isolated to the university, nor is it unique to liberals. Elsewhere, conservatives show similar levels of intolerance. Both conservatives and liberals engage in efforts to silence their opponents, and improving public discourse would benefit both.

But the attention to liberal intolerance on college campuses is warranted because liberals dominate the academy and have the institutionalized power to keep conservative ideas out. Institutions of higher education have been entrusted with the task of preparing students for responsible citizenship. There is evidence that they can do so not only by exposing students to a range of different ideas and arguments, but by focusing on civic education.

In my recent blog post for Heterodox Academy, I present evidence that political intolerance is a product of intellectual insecurity. Specifically, survey data shows that those who are least confident in their own political knowledge are most likely to censor other people’s expression.

This makes intuitive sense. In order to support the marketplace of ideas, one has to believe that one can defend one’s own ideas and promote them to others. Those who lack the confidence to engage in the vulnerable process of evaluating and defending ideas choose to silence opposition rather than confront it.

Accordingly, people who take courses in politics would have greater political understanding, show greater confidence in their knowledge of politics and exercise greater tolerance of political disagreement. Again, there is some evidence to support this.

Students in my political science research methods course routinely survey our campus as part of a class project. Two years ago, their survey focused on issues of tolerance. One group of students examined differences in political tolerance across college majors. They found that political science students were the most tolerant group on campus. The least tolerant tended to fall into professional fields.

Unfortunately, many colleges are moving away from civic education. According to a report by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, titled “A Crisis in Civic Education,” only 18 percent of liberal arts colleges require students to take even a single course in American government or American history. Not surprisingly, the study also finds that college students perform rather poorly on tests of political knowledge. Almost half could not identify the terms of office for members of Congress, and 40 percent did not know that Congress has the power to declare war.

There is some hope. In 2012, the Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement National Task Force called on colleges to make civic learning “an animating national priority” to confront our “civic recession.” In response, many colleges have increased their core requirements in civics.

At Elizabethtown College, we reasserted our commitment to public engagement with a new fifth-year master’s degree in public policy. It is open to students in a variety of majors and provides students with the skills needed for careers in meaningful public service.

But these positive steps still appear to be the exceptions. Other universities are moving in the wrong direction. For example, at my husband’s institution, Penn State Harrisburg, the administration has slashed the number of full-time political science faculty by half in four years and appears to be dismantling the public policy and political science programs altogether. This is especially telling of institutional priorities, given that this is the Penn State campus closest to the state capital and best positioned to engage students in public affairs.

These sorts of decisions are often justified on the basis of prioritizing institutional resources. But the real costs of abandoning civic education are difficult to quantify, as they are measured in the erosion of public discourse.

Colleges and universities that neglect their responsibilities in this area are not truly engaging in the business of “higher” education, and state legislatures should adjust their funding accordingly.


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