Advancing the Civic Mission of Universities in Challenging Times

08/31/2017 10:23 pm ET Updated Sep 01, 2017

Two weeks ago, a group of Harvard colleagues and I were in conversation with senior administrators and faculty from universities in India and Pakistan. We met in Dubai to discuss the role of the liberal arts in educating students to address the current challenges of those nations, and the global challenges shared with others. Our discussions examined the enduring civic purposes of a liberal arts education, as well as its evolving nature, in response to significant societal shifts. We examined also how to promote cosmopolitanism and tolerance at times when those values are increasingly under assault. A few days earlier a group of white supremacists and neo nazis had marched on the campus of the University of Virginia chanting racists and antisemitic slogans, followed by a violent demonstration that murdered a woman and injured many others who were opposing the racists. A reminder of the ubiquity of these challenges to human rights.

The enduring civic nature of a liberal arts education has been to help people develop the dispositions to participate in public life. In classical Rome, twenty centuries ago, this civic mission meant preparing the elites which were educated in the liberal arts to participate in public debate, defend themselves in court, serve on juries and serve militarily. The education to provide such preparation consisted of the Trivium (Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric), and the Quatrivium (Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy).

During the Renaissance, many centuries later, that mission of the liberal arts –still focused on educating elites—expanded to prepare people for political administration, the clergy or the professions of law and medicine. But the core mission of the liberal arts remained a civic mission. The Trivium and the Quatrivium expanded to include the growing number of disciplines in the Arts and Sciences, namely: Arts, Mathematics, Natural Science, Philosophy, Religious Studies and Social Science.

The global project of self-improvement and of improvement of the world brought about by the Enlightenment sharpened the civic mission of the University. Indeed, the Enlightenment re-created the University, alongside the creation of Public Education and of Democracy, so that the sisterhood of these institutions would provide the foundation for the advancement of a new social order conducive to freedom and equality.

It was the very same founding fathers who led the American experiment in self-rule, who created the first academic societies. In 1743, Benjamin Franklin established the American Philosophical Society, and six years later an institution of higher learning which would become the University of Pennsylvania. In 1780, John Adams chartered the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, tasked to promote scientific inquiry to advance the public good. The charter of the American Academy recognizes that scientists have an obligation to educate the public so that people can govern themselves. The same year that the American Academy was chartered, John Adams wrote the Massachusetts constitution, whose first article expands on the civic purposes of our universities:

“Wisdom, and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in the various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislators and magistrates, in all future periods of this Commonwealth, to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them; especially the university at Cambridge, public schools, and grammar schools in the towns; to encourage private societies and public institutions, rewards and immunities, for the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures, and a natural history of the country; to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings; sincerity, good humour, and all social affections, and generous sentiments among the people.”

These civic purposes of the ‘modern’ university crystalized with the founding of the first modern research university in Berlin by Wilhelm von Humboldt in 1820. A University that would advance three interrelated goals: the advancement of truth through research, the promotion of independent and critical thinking, and the education of the public. A year earlier, in 1819, Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia, an idea he had been developing for at least two decades, to create an institution on the most extensive liberal scale possible.

In our times, the commitment of those of us who work in higher education is been tested as civility breaks and as fundamental democratic norms and ideals are challenged. In many countries those challenges take the form of limits from authoritarian regimes to academic freedom to pursue truth without restraints or control over the curriculum. In the United States, the most recent challenges stem from the rise of a hateful ideology and violence, not just in American society, but in university campuses themselves. The shameful demonstration of hatred that a group of white supremacists and neo-nazis displayed in Charlottesville, Virginia, three weeks ago, began with a march in the very campus of the University of Virginia. A number of those participating in the march were university graduates and students, of several universities.

As we ponder how best to exercise our civic mission in these challenging times:

a) We should, collectively, join those institutions, and the faculty who taught those bigots, in asking where did we fail, what did we not see, what did we fail to teach them. Frankly, we should be asking ourselves similar questions about the education of President Trump in an Ivy League institution given his failure to lead with moral clarity in the aftermath of the murder, the violence and the hateful words and actions perpetrated by these bigots.

b) We should ask ourselves hard questions about our responsibility to do more to educate those who do not have the opportunity to access higher education, to help them gain skills to provide for themselves and their families and to take responsibility for their lives, so that the despair of those who feel marginalized does not become a breeding ground for recruitment of hate groups who incite them to find scapegoats for their misfortunes and dissatisfaction.

c) We should engage the three activities that we are best at: education, research and invention, in addressing the underlying causes of hate, so we can prevent more violence caused by those who organize around it. We should engage our students in conversation about this rising hatred, with the discipline of mind to gain understanding of the causes of such hate, and of its consequences. We should also engage in historical study of the violence and harm caused by racial supremacy ideologies have led. We should study those causes and consequences with the full force of the scientific prowess that universities offer societies. And we should, finally, invent solutions to the various underlying causes of these challenges, whether they are mis-education, social segregation, lack of economic opportunities, groups organizing and funding radicalization, or the erosion of civic life and institutions.

These actions are all squarely part of the civic mission of the modern university, and of an education in the liberal arts and we should examine whether the rising hatred in our communities, and in our campuses, should cause us to consider it our business, relevant to our institutional mission. Some historical perspective might help inform our thinking.

The modern research university was born in Germany in 1820. A century later, German universities had a well deserved reputation for educating independent thinkers. Academic freedom and research in German universities were a model that many universities followed, in the United States as well as in other nations. But a form of ultra-nationalism also developed in German Universities, large numbers of German professors applauded Germany’s war ambitions in 1915, and few supported the Weimar government that emerged after Germany surrendered in 1918. They may have underestimated the evil force that the nascent populist-nationalism would eventually turn into.

Hitler saw academics as an enemy who would resist his attempts to impose an ideology of racial supremacy. Once appointed Chancellor he achieved control of the university curriculum, to eliminate education in the humanities and to control appointments of university faculty and leaders, firing faculty who were Jewish, social democrats or liberals. Academics who spoke against the regime were brought to concentration camps. Many professors and administrators became collaborators of the Nazi regime, including aligning teaching and research with the efforts to create a society based in white supremacy. Many German academics went into exile, when there was still time.

It is of no use to speculate on the course history would have followed in Germany, had universities taken a more decisive stance, early on, in resisting what was initially a small populist movement of misfits. But what we can and should do in America in 2017 is to understand that universities have a core civic mission to advance democratic values and to prepare students for democratic leadership, and that those values are challenged by groups who are engaged in increasingly open forms of racist violence. That such violence broke out in a University campus three weeks ago should only add to the urgency of doing what we must to strengthen democracy. And just as our colleagues, the senior higher education leaders from Pakistan and India we met two weeks ago to discuss the future of the liberal arts education and the role of universities in promoting civility and cosmopolitanism, so too should we think with a moral clarity that has eluded the nation’s President and a number of higher education leaders and faculty about our civic responsibility in challenging times.

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