- To Restore American Democracy: Political Education and the Modern University
To Restore American Democracy, a volume of essays delivered at a one-week conference at DePauw University in April 2005 by notable American critics and scholars of political institutions, addresses the challenge of outlining a civic education agenda for colleges and universities.
In his introduction, editor Robert Calvert tells the story of Brian, an alienated college student who epitomizes higher education's struggle to engage students in civic life. Brian, Calvert informs us, has written an editorial in the DePauw student paper claiming his refusal to vote as an innate right and justifying his detachment from politics because he feels politicians are poseurs, the political process is inconsequential at best, and, at worst, the system is rigged to favor wealthy and powerful interests over the commonweal.
Calvert asserts that the goal of his volume is to show Brian that he is both wrong and morally culpable for acquitting himself of complicity in the condition of the republic. What Calvert doesn't say is that Brian's claim is essentially an expression of a widely felt sentiment among voters and nonvoters, among the engaged and the disengaged, that liberal democracy is no longer working. The roots of this cynicism are obviously myriad and go beyond the space afforded here, but they include the discrediting of government intervention following the collapse of communism and the disappointments of the 1960s, the disillusionment with politicians after repeated criminal and personal scandals that have reached to the highest levels of government, the salience of personal wealth in public policymaking, and the decline of essential democratic institutions such as a press unconcerned with profit and legislative structures that organized a potentially chaotic policy process.
With such imposing macro-level forces at play, it may seem the height of hubris to believe that higher education institutions can restore American democracy by themselves or even begin to equip a people to take up this challenge on their own. In fact, the authors do an admirable job of sketching just how large the challenge looms.
Todd Gitlin and Benjamin Barber contribute trenchant essays on how the market and the media play a larger role than higher education ever can in shaping both the civic space and the college students whom the volume's authors would seek to mold. But the authors all share a deep commitment to the idea that higher education has an essential responsibility to prepare students for their part in the civic sphere. What is more, they share an equally deep commitment to the concept that a common core curriculum is the primary tool by which colleges can equip students for civic life as contributing citizens.
They certainly recognize the potential limits facing any mission to teach values and morality; several authors contrast the case of 9/11 hero Rick Rescorla, a self-educated man of humble origins, to the Wall Street brokers and corporate CEOs with elite academic pedigrees who defrauded their customers and their countrymen of billions.
But are the republic and its prospects truly improved if our graduates can tell the difference between the Iliad and the Odyssey and recognize that Virgil and not Homer wrote the Aeneid? Gitlin, Cass Sunstein, Michael Sandel, Michael Walzer, and Stephen Holmes each write with compelling passion and persuasive force that a core curriculum ought to equip students to form arguments rather than the "feelings" that typically form the basis of their positions. A core, as Sunstein says, ought to confront students with ideas and cultures beyond the scope of what they would encounter on their [End Page 330] own. Sandel argues that the core of a higher education curriculum ought not to educate students to fit in the world but rather to master the tools with which to challenge and change the world they inherit.
To these ideas Barber, Leroy Rouner, Jean Elshtain, and Alan Wolfe add that students graduating into a globalized world dominated by American might must be grounded...