Liberal Education

Diversity and Civic Learning: The Unfinished Work

Last winter, AAC&U released two reports on diversity and civic learning: A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future, the new report of the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, and The Drama of Diversity and Democracy: Higher Education and American Commitments, the classic AAC&U report now published in a new edition. Released in the context of a renewed legal challenge to race-conscious affirmative action, both reports invite higher education to reengage a fundamental question: How does—and should—higher education help shape the future and secure the foundations of this nation’s still unfinished experiment with democracy?

First published in 1995, Drama was the anchor report for the American Commitments initiative, decade-long, multi-project effort focused on diversity as a resource for excellence and a catalyst for understanding ongoing struggles for justice. Over time, hundreds of colleges, universities, and community colleges became involved in the initiative, working together to bring new voices and communities into the curriculum, make campus life constructively intercultural, and tackle festering systemic problems in partnership with wider communities. The report’s analysis was framed by a distinguished national panel of scholars and academic leaders who, in turn, were richly informed by two years of dialogue with faculty and other leaders from all parts of higher education.

As president of AAC&U, I am very proud of the role this association has played in making respectful engagement with cultures and perspectives different from one’s own and the study of socially enforced inequalities an expected part of a contemporary liberal education. As recent studies show, 79 percent of our members now make intercultural knowledge and competence a key requirement for college learning.

The educational principles, premises, and practices articulated through American Commitments also became foundational to AAC&U’s subsequent work on liberal education and making excellence inclusive, especially our current signature initiative, Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP). Diversity and civic learning are central to the LEAP vision for liberal education. Engaging with ideas, beliefs, experiences, and cultural traditions very different from one’s own, the AAC&U community believes, is a necessary part of any high-quality education, and a new basic for success in the workplace and for civic problem solving in society.

And yet, notwithstanding the progress Americans have made with diversity over the past two decades—within higher education and in our still-evolving democracy—we need to be intensely conscious of the work that has not been accomplished and that still requires both creativity and a sense of urgency from educators and societal leaders alike.

Despite valiant efforts, American society has not even begun to achieve the equitable access to college—much less equitable completion of college degrees—that AAC&U leaders envisioned when we launched the American Commitments initiative. Our campuses value diversity, and the majority of them are far more inclusive today than they were just a generation ago. But large parts of our society still remain far outside the gates when it comes to meaningful educational opportunity and access to prosperity. And, as recent research documents, only some college students are really benefiting from extended engagement with people from diverse backgrounds and with perspectives different from their own.

Even more soberingly, the social opportunity and mobility that Americans have long taken for granted as intrinsic and admirable features of our society have slowed dramatically in recent years. With the top 1 percent of Americans controlling more than 40 percent of the nation’s wealth, and with economic growth anemic at best, the quest to create a truly equitable democracy seems more challenging than ever.

And, regrettably, we still remain very far indeed from making the connections between diversity and democracy an expected and integral part of the college curriculum. AAC&U’s goal for American Commitments was to ensure that all college students graduate both prepared and inspired to take active responsibility for building a more just, equitable, and inclusive democracy. But twenty years later, civic learning remains optional within the curriculum; diversity studies continue to assume core democratic principles without, for the most part, actually examining them; and even as democratic movements and quests build strength around the world, democracy in any form is rarely part of the core curriculum.

Was democracy ever part of the standard college curriculum? In fact, it was. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, faculty members across higher education developed required courses that were intentionally designed to acquaint college students with the institutions, ideas, principles, and contestations that undergirded Western democracies and, more broadly, the very idea of a free and self-governing society. By the last quarter of the century, these so-called “Western Civ” courses were rightly deemed dated and inadequate—too partial in their vision for a global era, too exclusionary in the voices and texts they explored. But when higher education turned away from what had been a widely taught core course, we did not create a new and more contemporary design for engaging students with democracy’s roots, constitutional principles, or foundational and continuing debates, either at home or abroad.

Today, our democracy is riven by profound disagreements about the meaning and nature of federalism and about the intended constitutional relation between church and state. The struggles over who belongs and who has meaningful access to opportunity continue. We assume the future of our democracy, of course. But we are not asking the nation’s most highly educated citizens to think about what it will actually take to sustain it. And the core issues for a democratic republic—the meaning of freedom, equality, human dignity, human rights, civil rights, and justice—are, astoundingly, not “core” at all in the college curriculum. Nor are these topics explored in the high school curriculum, whose textbooks assiduously seek to avoid any topic that might be controversial.

A Crucible Moment, prepared and released with support from the US Department of Education, presents a far-reaching national action plan designed to move civic learning from the periphery to the center of the college curriculum. The report builds on the good work done on many campuses in such areas as the study of diversity at home and abroad, service learning, and intergroup dialogue, and on a few outstanding campus models for making civic learning expected rather than optional across the curriculum and cocurriculum. But the core message of the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement (of which I am a member) is that islands of promising practice for civic learning in a diverse democracy are far from enough. A democratic society needs to take democracy seriously. And that means engaging all college learners with democracy’s multiple histories, presences, and futures—in all the ways that Drama outlined nearly two decades ago.

Diversity and democracy need to be studied—and experienced—in generative relationship with one another. Neither construct is simple; the meaning of each is both contested and evolving. And yet, the interconnections and generative tensions between diversity and democracy provide a fundamental framing for the past, present, and future of our republic—and, we may posit, for the challenges now faced by other societies around the globe.

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