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  • The Right to (a Public) Philosophy:Renewing the Civic Purposes of Democratic Justice and Responsibility in the Post-Secondary Public Education "to Come"1
  • Seán Patrick Eudaily (bio)

My students are struck mute when asked, "Why should the people of Montana and the United States of America be spending taxpayer dollars to support your university education?" First off, it appears as if most students are not cognizant of this political-economic fact at all. Secondly, the more they think about it, the more the looks on their faces show confusion. It is at this moment more than any other – more than poring over national assessment scores, more than native English speaking university students' inability to cogently write in their own language, more even than the inevitable student course evaluation listing "reading books" as their least favorite class activity – that I have the profound sense of failure as a public university professor. The failure is our own; we have never taught our students why public education exists in the first place.

Contrast this to the question, "Why are you at university?" Many will answer tautologically that they are here to further their education (which still begs the question "Why?"), a few with more humor will say it's because they were handed a diploma and "kicked out of high school." Some of the most focused and diligent will answer, "I'm here so that I can get a good job." I firmly believe that it is not only that many students confuse these two questions, but rather that the experience in the American public education system has made the former incomprehensible to them. They do not understand the question because of their years spent in public institutions which (despite the endless time and energy devoted to committee work on learning outcomes, mission statements, and strategic planning) have long since lost the self-awareness of why they were created.

This is but a symptom of an endemic disease in our public life. Increasing concern is now being paid to the decline in the values, skills and practice of citizenship within established democratic countries like our own. Whether discussed in terms of a lack of political knowledge or poor voter turnout, the core worry of many is that even as citizen access to public institutions and services has grown, citizen activity has waned, particularly among the young.

In response to these concerns, an upsurge of energy has been put towards proposals for a renewed emphasis on civic education as a potent weapon in the fight against citizen apathy. Many have harkened back to the early days of American public education for a more inspiring vision of citizenship:

The establishment of American public schools during the nineteenth century was the manifestation of this vision, which assumed that all education had civic purposes and every teacher was a civics teacher. That vision is now embedded in 40 state constitutions that mention the importance of civic literacy among citizens; 13 of these constitutions state that the central purpose of their educational system is to promote good citizenship, democracy, and free government.2

My purpose in this essay is to argue that public universities and community colleges have a unique role to play in this vision, one that has important differences from the programs of civic education reform proposed for K-12 public schools. In this argument I will draw heavily from the experiences of my home institution, the University of Montana-Western.

There have been so many voices raised in the conversation about civic education that it would be impossible to survey them all with any justice. I will focus on two of the most widely talked about proposals: The Civic Mission of Schools report published by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the Restoring the Balance Between Academics and Civic Engagement in Public Schools report published by the American Youth Policy Forum and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

The Civic Mission of Schools report contains two elements that have exercised a strong agenda-setting function in the area of civic education reform. The first is a list of...


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