U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The State of Universities and Civic Life

BTtoPLast week I had the good fortune to spend two days in Washington, D.C., with a fascinating and passionate group of people from a range of disciplines and home institutions. What drew them together was their deep concern about the past, present, and future of civic life (particularly in the U.S., but elsewhere as well). This was a gathering of contributors to a new series of books called the Civic Monograph Series put out by Bringing Theory to Practice of the American Association of Colleges and Universities; authors had been invited to contribute a chapter to one of five books exploring the question of the role of higher education in public life.

These volumes include Civic Provocations (already published and available free online here and “Civic Values and Civic Practices,” “Civic Studies,” “Civic Learning and Teaching,” and “Civic Renewal of Higher Education” (forthcoming July 2013, October 2013, February 2014, and May 2014 respectively).

As the current state of our colleges and universities is a matter of dire concern, it is always refreshing these days when anyone devotes concerted attention to the question of why and what, if anything, can be done about it. The way this project comes at the issue seems especially interesting and perhaps even, in some parts, anyway, promising.

I harbor serious doubts about much that is said and done in the name of learning by doing, the move toward relevance, and other such programs, which often seem little more than a way to gut the curriculum of its very raison d’être–its intellectual content and quality. Just having a public dimension does not guarantee anything worthy, just as community engagement can happen for ill as well as good. And on the other side, the most arcane, esoteric studies may actually turn out someday to have a bearing on a crucial, suddenly relevant public issue. Even if not, they can be worth undertaking in themselves. To be too literal (and present-minded) about whether scholarship has a public payoff obscures more subtle ways that work–how it is done, as well as what is done–can have a bearing on the health of the public sphere. Yet I am also with many of those whose work does have a clearly discernible public element today. If none of those committed to a life of the mind are outward looking, addressing matters of public concern and speaking to a wider public, we would undoubtedly see both intellectual life and democracy wither away. 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.

It seems to me that this project does, which is why it captured my interest on paper but even more when I was able to meet its organizers and the other authors at the gathering in Washington.

Heading the project is Donald W. Harward, president emeritus of Bates College in Lewiston, Maine and co-founder of Bringing Theory to Practice. His efforts are joined by those of series editor Barry Checkoway, professor of social work and urban planning and founder of the Ginsburg Center at the University of Michigan. As did the other authors with whom I was able to talk in depth, these men struck me as humble and thoughtful. The point of their series is to help foster a set of conversations about the public mission of the university as well as the state of civic life. Discussion and debate are not only tolerated, but lie at the heart of what is both means and end in this project in democratic citizenship.

peter levineThe first volume is definitely worth a read by anyone interested in considering these issues. One of the highlights for me is the essay by Peter Levine, who is not only one of the most thoughtful people I’ve heard address these issues, but one of the most thoughtful people I’ve heard address any issue. Peter Levine is the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs in Tufts University’s Jonathan Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service and Director of CIRCLE, The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. If you are one of those prone to react to a title like “Civic Studies as an Academic Discipline,” his chapter in Civic Provocations, with at least a little frisson of fear that the already prone traditional academic disciplines could not withstand yet another “studies”-type program, let alone one of the “service-learning” sort, you might find yourself guessing again. Levine, the son of my late close friend and colleague, the Early Modern British historian Joseph Levine, who was Distinguished Professor of history at Syracuse University, has a vision of the role of higher education in civic life worth careful consideration even by those skeptical of plans to make higher education more engaged in the civic realm. As he lays it out–only a movement of real intellectual heft would interest this deep and prolific scholar–Peter Levine’s vision, and version, of the civic mission of higher education is one to be taken seriously. You can read the talk he delivered at the authors’ gathering on his superb blog here. He is a brilliant and passionate defender of both democracy and the humanities, of civic engagement and high scholarship. We could use more people like him who do not see these as mutually exclusive endeavors. No matter what one thinks of some of the less worthwhile plans that might be floating around in the broader movement for more civic-minded universities and colleges, as in any such movement, or even if one were to disagree with the thrust of the movement overall, any project that has this kind of potential, as far fetched as it might seem at the moment, for helping to give the humanities the new lease on life they sorely need, is worth at least a second glance.