Tuesday, March 6, 2012

General Education and Civil Society: Thoughts On "The Crucible Moment"

In an earlier posting on “General Education and the Engaged University,” I cited the 1948 Truman Commission on Higher Education’s definition of the function of general education at mid-century.  The Commission noted eleven goals that reflect the need to rebuild civil society after a half-century of World War and global financial depression, and attempted to respond to the remarkable changes in the structure of civil society and the revolution in technology that were among the consequences of the 20th century upheavals.  I had cited the same Commission back in 1988 in The Meaning of General Education, my history of the idea of general education. 

So, I was pleasantly surprised when The Crucible Moment:  College Learning and Democracy’s Future, a report of The Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement National Task Force, also cited the Truman Commission in making its case for re-committing higher education to a curriculum that ensures a  “socially cohesive and economically vibrant U.S. democracy and a viable, just global community.”  This goal, notes the report,  will require that civic learning and democratic engagement not be sidelined but central, not an afterthought but an anticipated and integral part of K-12 and college education” (p. 20).

Civic education was a focus of K-12 education in the postwar period.  When I was a high school student in the 1960s, at least one class per day was focused on civic education of one kind or another.  Ninth grade was split between Pennsylvania History and “Civics”—an introduction to the Constitution and American government.  Tenth and eleventh grades saw a year of world history and a year of American history.  And twelfth grade was “Problems of Democracy” – POD—a daily excursion into the issues that have faced American democracy throughout its history.  While most histories ended with World War II, POD brought us into the present.   In addition, I recall that the first time I saw film of civil rights protestors being beaten was in tenth grade English. 

This was pretty typical of what the first generation of postwar students experienced.  It is not hard to imagine that this education pre-disposed that generation to embracing the civil society revolution that was to come:  civil rights, women’s rights, the peace movement, gay/lesbian rights.  We were, as it turned out, a democratically engaged generation.  Our education contributed to that.  Similarly, it is not hard to imagine that the lack of civic education that has marked the past generation has contributed to the very odd disconnect between individual citizens and their government that has contributed to the economic chaos and social polarization that defines our present day.

What, then, should higher education do to embrace civic learning and democratic engagement?  Crucible Moment defines civic-minded campuses as having four characteristics:  “. . . such campuses are distinguished by a civic ethos governing campus life, civic literacy as a goal for every graduate, civic inquiry integrated within majors, general education, and technical training, and informed civic action done in concert with others as lifelong practice” (p. 31).

An Opportunity for General Education

The idea of a civically engaged university has the potential to re-invigorate the concept of General Education as our institutions adapt to the changing societal needs of the Information Revolution.

While at some institutions General Education has been reduced to a “distribution requirement”—a collection of introductory courses that give students a glimpse of different disciplines—General Education has a much more important role to play in creating citizens.

We can envision a General Education program that prepares students to be effective citizens of a global information society as having several elements:

·      Knowledge – The cultural foundations of civic democracy—a multi-disciplinary approach that includes history, philosophy, and social change to give students a grounding in the cultural traditions and forces of change.

·      Skills – At one time, the skills section of a general education program focused on communications—public speaking and writing, especially.  In today’s global information society, critical citizenship skills must include how to find and evaluate information, problem-solving, collaboration, and inter-cultural understanding.  These, in turn, require an active learning environment in which students work, individually and together, to local and evaluate information, turn it into knowledge, and apply it to solve problems.

·      Attitudes – This includes understanding the role of globalization in shaping one’s identify and understanding one’s role as an individual in family, local community, national, and global contexts.   It is in this area that the curriculum develops the student’s predisposition to act in different environments.

·      Experience—Just as the Industrial Revolution stimulated the inclusion of laboratory courses to help students understand the scientific process and the standards of scientific research, the global Information Society requires that students gain direct experience in working in different communities.  This can be accomplished through local internships, service-focused study abroad opportunities, or projects that bring together multicultural student teams to explore social issues and find solutions to problems.  This could also be the focus of a capstone course for professional programs.

I expect to explore the details of a general education approach to civic democracy in future positions.  My purpose here is simply to illustrate the range of activities that could be integrated into a curriculum designed to address the issues raised by the Crucible Moment report.

This is one of a series of postings that I am planning on the broad topic of General Education for an Information Society.  Comments and discussion are very welcome.