The LEAP Challenge Blog

Another Urgent Deficit—The Deficit of Civic Learning and Liberal Education

Commentators—on everything from education to politics to health—are all obsessed with reducing state and federal budget deficits.  And, indeed, our nation faces some difficult choices in the coming months and years.  If we make the right choices, we can reduce wasteful spending, but invest in the things that will enable our nation's economy and its democracy to thrive in the future.

Many education policymakers are trying to make the case for at least maintaining investments in education, including in higher education.  They make this case, however, almost exclusively by referring to how increasing educational attainment can fuel innovation and help our nation compete in the global economy.  We also must invest, however, in a democratic vision for education—one that extends beyond just the need for more educated workers.

Charles N. Quigley, executive director of the Center for Civic Education, made this point eloquently at the recent release of the new NAEP findings on the state of civic education in K-12 schools.  As he noted, "civic education is facing a real 'civics recession' calling upon all of us to develop a national call to action."  He continues by pointing out that, "during the past decade or so, educational policy and practice appear to have focused more and more upon developing the 'worker' at the expense of developing the 'citizen.'"

The 2010 NAEP findings on civic education are, indeed, alarming.  There was a decline in the NAEP scores for 12th graders with fewer students scoring at the proficient or advanced levels than in either 1998 or in 2006.  Only about one-quarter of high school seniors tested proficient or advanced and 36 percent of seniors scored below basic in attainment of knowledge and skills essential to effective citizenship.  Given today's complex and challenging global entanglements, it is particularly disturbing to see that less than half of 12th graders report even studying international topics as part of their high school civics-related courses.

As many readers of this blog know, AAC&U has rigorously advanced a broader vision of learning through various initiatives, including through our Greater Expectations,  LEAP, and Core Commitments initiatives, each of which seeks to help campuses provide to every college student a set of essential learning outcomes to prepare them for citizenship and professional success.  Core Commitments specifically is designed to create campus environments that enable all students to achieve a broad set of "personal and social responsibility" outcomes—outcomes essential both for effective citizenship and work. Unfortunately, Core Commitments research points to a gap between rhetorical affirmations for civic responsibility as an essential goal for all students and the actual opportunities available that can enhance students' civic capacities.

The good news is that many campuses involved in the Core Commitments initiative and many others across the country are working to close this gap between rhetoric and reality.  Unfortunately, these efforts are threatened by continuing fiscal challenges at many institutions.  In fact, urgent calls to increase graduation rates while decreasing funding are resulting in frightening proposals to shorten students' time to degree by eliminating some of the very courses and programs that enable students to become informed, responsible, and ethical citizens and workers.  In a slide presentation produced by the LEAP Presidents' Trust, we asked, for instance, "is it possible to be civically and globally prepared without any study of world histories, global cultures, political, economic, and social systems, the ideas and institutions that support constitutional democracy, the great religious and philosophical traditions?"

We must, instead, invest in more engaged and integrated forms of learning that ensure that every K-12 and college student has multiple opportunities to learn about these subjects and also to practice the arts of democracy in many ways, including through community-based learning.  Many four-year colleges, community colleges, and universities are inventing innovative programs that provide these opportunities—but we must expand those to more students.

I am also working on an initiative designed to help reduce the civic deficit and propel forward more concerted action on civic education both at home and abroad.  AAC&U is working in partnership with the Global Perspective Institute to produce a report that includes a National Plan of Action for reinvesting in education for democracy and civic responsibility.  Sponsored by the Department of Education, the project has organized national roundtable meetings  during the past six months of civic leaders, scholars, and educators both within higher education and beyond to advise us on the plan, which will be completed this fall.

As Quigley put it earlier this week at the release of the NAEP report, "Each generation must work to preserve the fundamental values and principles of its heritage; to work diligently to narrow the gap between the ideals of this nation and the reality of the daily lives of its people; and to more fully realize the potential of our constitutional, democratic republic."  AAC&U's President echoed these sentiments in a statement she released this week marking the death of Osama Bin Laden.  She noted that, "In this new era of global interdependence, higher education institutions play an even more crucial role—both by providing centers for civic inquiry and problem-solving, and by educating citizens who are both prepared and inspired to provide knowledgeable and conscientious leadership for the future of democracy at home and abroad."