U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The State of Universities and Civic Life, Part Two

Two weeks ago I posted this short write-up on the meeting of a working group I attended in Washington, D.C. 

The organizers had assembled the editors and authors who are at work on
a five-volume Civic Monograph Series currently being published by the American
Association of Colleges and Universities’ Bringing Theory to Practice project. The series
is designed to raise penetrating questions about the civic mission of higher education
today. Sounding a plaintive note about the tensions that frequently divide those involved
in a common quest for democracy and excellence, my post emphasized the need for
both a renewal of civic-mindedness and an enduring commitment to high scholarship:

“What often baffles me is why we can’t value the best of both worlds; why we cannot
hold different visions, traditions, practices in our minds at the same time.” Tufts
University Professor Peter Levine, who participated in the meeting, brings together
these two strands in a way I find particularly compelling.

I was delighted to receive a personal correspondence in response to my post from my
friend Deedee Learnard Levine, Peter’s mother, who offered incisive reflections of her
own. Having spent decades teaching in the public school system in Syracuse, New
York, Deedee Levine articulated a view of the purpose of education that struck me as
profound and sparkling with insight. I found her critical take on prevalent attitudes and
rousing words for how we could do things differently fresh and inspiring. She kindly
agreed to allow me to quote her here:

“We need (as I think you believe) the double strand as a basis for creating our own
personal goals, as a source for ideas and strategies for developing them and as a
support for positive thinking about our society, history and culture. People in America
and maybe everywhere, are failing to appreciate what they have; what they have gained
through struggles of history; and how to define a purpose or many purposes in their
their own lives instead of whining about how empty their lives feel. The awful thing is
that spooned values are worthless. The individual citizen’s job is to create them for
himself or herself. Teachers always put it the wrong way by saying, ‘You have to learn
to think.’ They ought to be taking the responsibility for stimulating the palpable need in
students to find answers. The goal is not to pass the tests by knowing how to do two-step
word problems. Somebody has to help them see and solve problems that are
worth solving or define them so they can be solved.

Any view of the struggle women are having to gain the right to an education in countries
where women are denied that right, ought to be a lesson to women who have that right
to appreciate, cherish and enrich that right for their own daughters (and sons too of
course). Education is fundamentally the right to create your own values and develop
the ability to defend them. The boys in America (statistically speaking at least) are
losing out now. They need to take back their right to become educated effective citizens
instead of throwing the opportunities back in the faces of ‘educators’ as hated
(worthless) authority figures. We have given up our own claims to guide them with
punishments instead of showing that learning and experience go together.”

If we are to realize any possibilities for the revitalization of both American education and
democratic civic life we sorely need, we will need as much wisdom and clarity of vision
along these lines, from educators at all levels, as we can get. Thank you, Deedee.

Deedee Levine received a certificate in primary education at the Froebel Institute of Education in London then went on to a 25-year teaching career in London and in the Syracuse City School District at various grade levels and as Art History Teacher in the Gifted Center. She received two major awards: a grant for program development in humanities sponsored by the United States Department of Education and a Teacher/Scholar Award sponsored by the DeWitt Wallace Foundation and the National Endowment for Humanities.

One Thought on this Post

  1. People in America and maybe everywhere, are failing to appreciate what they have; what they have gained
    through struggles of history

    The most valid criticism of Howard Zinn’s emphasis on the negative. Discovering our beastliness to each other over the ages takes little industry or imagination. [Mere indifference is usually sufficient.]

    Locating our better angels is the miracle, and that’s not the same thing as issuing jeremiads. As we see below, the moral utility of condemnation is limited at best.

    and how to define a purpose or many purposes in their
    their own lives instead of whining about how empty their lives feel.

    The awful thing is that spooned values are worthless. The individual citizen’s job is to create them for himself or herself.

    I’ve always had a weakness for this kind of utilitarian existentialism: per Viktor Frankl, those who had a purpose [regardless of what it was] were the ones who survived the concentration camps.

    OTOH, the idea of our little monsters spawning useful value systems by spontaneous generation requires more trust in human nature than I have. Or trust in the sort of values they may come up with beyond the tribal, or the feral.

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