So far, more than 80 million Americans have tuned in to watch this year’s presidential and vice-presidential debates. Nowhere has the attention been more pronounced than on the host campuses themselves. The last debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton at Washington University in St. Louis once again highlighted the role universities can play in civic discourse.
In the heat of the election season, campus leaders have eagerly embraced their roles as champions of civic education. Before the Washington University debate began, Chancellor Mark Wrighton praised students for “becoming better adept at understanding the issues we face in our country.”
In recent months, Longwood University President W. Taylor Reveley has ruminated in The Atlantic on the “crucially important” responsibility the American university has in fostering civic education, and bemoaned in the Wall Street Journal: “Fewer people, a smaller portion of the American public, is paying closer attention to American politics…American higher education has stopped, in the main, thinking of citizenship and democracy as its basic purpose and begun to think in a much narrower sense of ‘college is good for career.’”
The time is out of joint in American politics, so Wrighton and Reveley’s concern for civic education seems applause-worthy. But, as the data show, colleges and universities are not actually holding up their end of the bargain in preparing students well for civic life.
Implying Citizens Don’t Need to Be Informed
“What Will They Learn?” a recent report from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, found that of the 1,110 college and university general education programs examined, only 18 percent require a course in U.S. history or government. Only 27 percent of public universities and a mere 10 percent of private universities require civics.
Of the four universities hosting debates this year, only the University of Nevada–Las Vegas requires a course in American history or government. At the vast majority of schools, students can receive credit in history, social science, or civics by taking boutique elective courses that fulfill broad distributional requirements. Statistics like these should prompt the American public to question higher education’s ability to foster an informed citizenry.
Longwood University provides a case study for how campuses treat civics. As part of its election-year programming, it introduced several courses with a civic theme, such as a course on gender as a campaign issue and a photography course on protests and rallies. But none of these courses is required, and the university does not require a single foundational course in American history, government, or constitutional law.
Dropping History Affects the Country
The disappearance of civic education from college curricula—once a cornerstone of the liberal arts experience—is associated with broader deterioration of civic life on campuses. In September, Gallup reported that only 39 percent of surveyed Americans said they were following politics “very closely.” Only 20 percent of Americans aged 18–34 reported the same.
A more detailed Gallup survey confirmed this alarming trend among college millennials. In a survey commissioned by the Knight Foundation and the Newseum Institute, more than one in four students said colleges should restrict political views that are upsetting, offensive speech, and press coverage of campus protests—an absurd sacking of the First Amendment.
Today’s college campuses are more noteworthy for censorship and conformity than for civic engagement and free expression. The past year has given way to a crop of speakers disinvited from campus, hecklers’ vetoes, and faculty calling for “muscle” to shut down the free press. These incidents are hardly surprising since, most of the time, deliberate civic education has disappeared from so many campuses.
Instilling a focus on democratic ideas and issues during an election year is, of course, a legitimate first step in reclaiming civics in higher education. But fostering an informed electorate represents far more than a public relations opportunity. It is essential to the endurance of a free society.
As part of the mission of higher education, administrators have a responsibility to empower students with the historical and political knowledge required to engage constructively in public discourse, challenging their own preconceived worldviews. To develop the informed citizens a republic needs for it to function, creative syllabus editing every four years is not enough.
Academic policy is ultimately what counts. Universities, perhaps now more than ever, must rededicate themselves to cultivating engaged citizenship in American undergraduates—and that requires a serious, substantive, and sustained commitment to teaching the crucial elements of civics. Short of that, today’s challenge of a disengaged and uninformed electorate will become tomorrow’s incipient disaster.