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National CrossTalk Summer 1999
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The Public Purposes of Higher Education: Us Not Me

By Thomas Ehrlich

Thomas Ehrlich  
IT IS OLD NEWS that students go to college primarily to get a job. The data are clear that this is the overwhelming reason why applicants and their parents are willing to pay escalating undergraduate tuition, even at small liberal arts colleges. Both students and their parents want higher education to serve as an individual enabler—to enable a graduate to get a job, to earn money, and, as a result, to have a happy life.
The “college as job credential” phenomenon means that prospective students struggle before coming to college to choose the right major for their career aspirations. The overwhelming majority of undergraduates select a major because they believe that it will provide the quickest and safest route to high-paid employment, which has made business the number one major in the country (U.S. Department of Education, 1996). General education courses are seen as hurdles to get over on the way to preparing for that career.
Increasingly, colleges and universities are responding with curricular arrangements designed to meet these market pressures. Fractionating forces in higher education are pressing them to cater to career needs with all the individualized attention of a boutique and all the mass delivery capability of an ATM machine.
Higher education is obviously not alone in promoting rampant individualism; it mirrors contemporary American culture. The consequences of that consumer culture have been decried by many as promoting a growing sense that Americans are not responsible or accountable to each other, and a decline in civility, in mutual respect, and in tolerance. In short, it leads to the preeminence of self-interest and individual preference over concern for the common good (Bellah et al, 1991); (Putnam, 1995 and 1996). It is all about me and mine, not about us and ours.
Higher education too often these days is also just about me. It concentrates on preparing workers suited to American commerce and giving students knowledge and skills to compete economically, so that they can lead comfortable, affluent lives. Individual students are consumers who invest time and money to receive future individual economic benefits. Students who look at the institutional behaviors of their colleges and universities regularly see models of this balance-sheet behavior. The competitive, commercial pressures to view students as customers and to respond to their vocational demands have led institutions to promote their functions as enablers of individual advancement rather than conveners for the common good. Perhaps most troubling, students too rarely see their colleges and universities acting as responsible citizens of their communities.
Did higher education once better serve a convening function, helping our society understand and strengthen common bonds? Did it formerly have an animating sense of mission to enhance the common good? Nostalgia for the good old days is always dangerous; those days were never quite as good as we may remember. But I do think there has been a corrosion of a sense among institutions of higher education that they have a common mission to improve society as a whole.
The causes of this corrosion of public purpose are not hard to identify. Many are constraints that affect virtually every institution in society, not just colleges and universities. There are centrifugal pressures on organizations of every type. The pressures on higher education may seem more obvious now, but only because they have been relatively submerged until recently. The same forces that have made colleges and universities more responsive to market pressures have brought with them the value assumptions, the language, the administrative policies of the business world, including marketing and market research, corporate management strategies, and aggressive public relations.
These are not the only fractionating forces at work in higher education. The dominant template of pre-World War II higher education was private institutions educating full-time students from affluent families in residential settings. This template now holds true for just a small minority of American undergraduate education. Currently, more than three out of four undergraduates attend a public institution, and almost that same share are commuter students (U.S. Bureau of Census, 1998). A near majority of undergraduates today do not come to college or university directly from high school. They are older than their predecessors, they work part-time and are part-time students, many are married, and many are parents. Most do not view themselves as members of a “community of learners,” but rather as consumers who seek to get what they want as rapidly, as easily and as cheaply as possible. This may mean attending two or three different institutions in the course of an undergraduate career, over a six- or eight-year period.
At the same time, nearly 40 percent of undergraduate credit hours are taught by adjunct faculty who usually find it difficult to develop relationships with their students or to influence them outside the classroom (U.S. Bureau of Census). Even full-time faculty mem-bers, particularly those at prestigious research universities, often view themselves as entrepreneurial individual contractors, with little obligation to an institution, let alone an educational calling. Bidding wars are common for the talents of prominent faculty, who view their tenure as in the marketplace.
All these pressures, and more, are tough obstacles in the search for higher education’s public purposes—purposes beyond vocational preparation. Higher education has come to operate on what has been termed a “default program of instrumental individualism,” in which “expertise and skill appear as simply neutral tools to be appropriated by successful competitors in the service of their particular ends.” (Sullivan, p. 11, 1999)
Though the task of establishing and committing to common purposes is hard, it is arguably the most important challenge facing colleges and universities today. This paper focuses on civic responsibility as a common purpose of fundamental priority for American democracy. It is not the only common purpose. But it is among the most important.
Civic responsibility involves two interrelated strands for institutions of higher education. The first is preparing students for lives of civic responsibility. The second is serving as a responsible institutional citizen of a community. The first is obviously closest to the primary educational mission of a college or university, though neither can successfully occur without the other. This paper considers each strand in turn.

The need for civic learning
The data on civic life in this country are devastating. Americans growing up in recent decades vote less often than their elders and show lower levels of social trust and knowledge of politics (Putnam, 1995; Bennett and Rademacher, 1976). These shifts accompany a steep rise in the importance attached to “having lots of money” (Rahn and Tranuse, 1997). Data from annual Freshman Surveys indicate that the percentage of college freshman who report frequently discussing politics dropped from a high of 30 percent in 1968 to just 15 percent in 1995. Similar decreases were seen in percentages of college freshman who believe it is important to keep up to date with political affairs or who have worked on a political campaign (Sax and Astin, 1997; Astin, Parrot, Korn and Sax, 1997). These trends bode ill for the future of American democracy.
What might make one think that enhancing civic responsibility, particularly political engagement, is an essential common purpose of higher education? Past history and current mission statements are two reasons. The primary purpose of the first American colleges and universities was the development of students’ character, no less than their intellect. Character was defined in terms of moral and civic virtues. The founding charters of most colleges and universities are clear on their civic goals. This excerpt from the founding documents of Stanford University is typical: The objectives of the University are “to qualify students for personal success and direct usefulness in life and to promote the public welfare by exercising an influence on behalf of humanity and civilization…” Similar civic goals are still found in the mission statements of most higher education institutions across the country, which almost universally give at least formal recognition to the institutions’ responsibility for fostering the moral and civic maturity of their students.
A far more compelling reason for viewing civic responsibility as a necessary goal for higher education is the danger to our democracy if the increasing public disdain for civic engagement continues. That disdain is a serious problem among all groups, but it is particularly troubling in those who will be future leaders in our society. By an overwhelming margin, those leaders will be college and university graduates.
What can institutions of higher education do to help ameliorate this problem? A first step, and the purpose of our gathering, is to identify the dimensions of the problem and to discuss how to encourage a collective commitment to view civic learning as a common purpose of higher education. That step would be premised on the belief that institutions of higher education have both opportunities and obligations to cultivate in their graduates an appreciation for the responsibilities and rewards of civic engagement, as well as to foster the capacities necessary for thoughtful participation in public discourse and effective involvement in social enterprises. Important progress was made in this direction when the presidents of more than fifty colleges and universities gathered at Aspen last July 4th weekend and hammered out a “Declaration on the Civic Responsibility of Higher Education,” which committed those leaders to work to strengthen the civic learning on their campuses and the civic engagement of their institutions. Since then, more than two hundred other presidents have signed the Declaration, which includes an assessment instrument to help campuses in promoting civic responsibility.
As the Declaration makes clear, for colleges and universities to enhance the civic responsibility of their students means much more than telling them to be good citizens. “Civic” is used here to cover all social spheres beyond the family, from neighborhoods and local communities to state, national and cross-national arenas. Political engagement is a particular subset of civic responsibility that is required for sustaining American democracy. Colleges and universities should not be expected to promote a single type of civic or political engagement, but the argument here is that they should help prepare their graduates for becoming engaged citizens who provide the time, attention, understanding and action to collective civic goals. Those citizens recognize themselves as members of a larger social fabric, and therefore consider social problems to be at least partly their own; they are able to see the civic dimensions of issues, to make and justify informed civic judgments, and to take action when appropriate.
How can higher education enhance this kind of civic development? In a project under the auspices of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, several colleagues and I are analyzing the American undergraduate scene in terms of campus efforts to promote the civic responsibilities of students. We also are working to encourage colleges and universities to strengthen those efforts. Our work to date convinces us that higher education has the potential to be a powerful influence in reinvigorating the democratic spirit in America.
Our inquiries also have shown us that some American colleges and universities do take very seriously references in their mission statements to the civic education of their students. For a few of these institutions, this commitment shapes many or most aspects of the undergraduate educational experience and constitutes an intentional and holistic ap-proach to civic as well as academic education. For other institutions, strong programs de-signed with civic development in mind exist within an overall campus environment that does not have a comprehensive emphasis on these goals.
Our work persuades us that promoting civic learning involves mutually interde-pendent sets of knowledge, virtues and skills. Because they are interdependent, no simple listing of attributes is adequate. Such a listing may imply that the elements involved have precise definitions and parameters that might be gained through a single course or even from reading a few books. We have come to understand through studying various colleges and universities that this is not the case. Instead, enriching the civic responsibility of all members of the campus community is best achieved through the cumulative, interactive effect of numerous curricular and extracurricular programs, within an environment of sustained institutional commitment to these overarching goals.
We focus on those sets of knowledge, virtues and skills that we believe are central to civic development and integral to a sound undergraduate education. We do not mean, however, that these sets are necessary or sufficient for all situations or circumstances. We also do not mean that one can become a civically responsible person only by attending college. Rather, we are convinced that a college education can and should enhance these attributes and capacities.
Included in the core knowledge we consider integral to civic learning is knowledge of basic ethical concepts and principles, such as justice and equity, and how they have been interpreted by various seminal thinkers. Also included is a comprehension of the diversity of American society and global cultures, and an understanding of both the institutions and processes of American and international civic, political and economic affairs. Finally, deep substantive knowledge of the particular issues in which one is engaged is critical.
This core of knowledge cannot be separated from the virtues and skills that a civically responsible individual should strive to attain. The virtues and skills we have in mind are not distinct to civic learning but are necessary for active engagement in many personal and professional realms. Among the core virtues is the willingness to engage in critical self-examination and to form reasoned commitments, balanced by open-mindedness and a willingness to listen to and take seriously the ideas of others. Civic responsibility also requires honesty in dealings with others, and in holding oneself accountable for one’s action and inaction. Without a basis of trust, and habits of cooperation, no community can operate effectively. Empathy and compassion are also needed, not only for relating to those in one’s immediate social sphere, but for relating to those in the larger society as well. Willingness to form civic commitments and to act on those is a core virtue that puts the others into practice.
Finally, the core skills of civic responsibility are essential for applying core knowledge and virtues, transforming informed judgments into action. They include the abilities to recognize the civic dimensions of issues and to take a stand on those issues. But they also include skills that apply to much broader arenas of thought and behavior, such as abilities to communicate clearly orally and in writing, to collect, organize and analyze information, to think critically, and to justify positions with reasoned arguments, to see issues from the perspectives of others and to collaborate with others. They also include the ability and willingness to lead, to build a consensus, and to move a group forward under conditions of mutual respect.

Colleges and universities as good citizens
The second dimension of civic responsibility as a goal for higher education is the role of a college or university as an engaged citizen of its community. This dimension is closely related to the education of civically responsible citizens because students cannot be expected to take seriously the challenge of personal involvement if they do not see their own campus working to improve its community. “Town-gown” relations mean different things in different communities across the country, but serious commitments by campuses to community involvement are rare.
Some campuses, by design, have little community contact—they are simply sanctuaries surrounded by “No Parking” signs. Several years ago I participated in a public forum at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The issue was whether community-service learning is a sound pedagogy for undergraduates. Harvard Law School Professor Charles Fried, former solicitor general of the United States, was among the participants. Fried argued that during the undergraduate years, there should be a “moratorium” on student interactions with society. Young people in those years, he urged, should “be confronted with ideas, with truths, with reflection somewhat detached, perhaps even entirely detached, from the practical consequences of what they are learning.” (Transcript, pp. 9–10, 3/13/95) The campus-as-sanctuary approach follows naturally from views such as Fried’s.
Much more common in higher education is the perspective that communities are “pockets of needs, laboratories for experimentation, or passive recipients of expertise…” (Bringle et al, 1999) In other words, campuses should have interactions with their com-munities, but the interactions should be shaped solely by the academic needs of a college or university or, at most, by the judgments of those on the campus about what they can do to help the surrounding society. There is now substantial evidence, however, that if campuses want to succeed as good citizens, “they must discard the simplistic idea that to do so means learning how to disseminate expertise to the needy community in convenient doses. Engaging communities in campuses, as well as campuses in their communities, pro-vides opportunities for enhancing traditional scholarship and contributing to both sets of stakeholders in meaningful ways.” (Bringle et al, 1999) In a study of 23 strong campus-community partnerships over a five-year period, Professor Barbara Holland confirmed that judgment.
What does a real partnership between a campus and its surrounding community look like? Fortunately, numerous exemplars now exist. Portland State University is one illustration. The campus leadership has made improving the City of Portland a primary goal, and continually redefines the implementation of that goal in terms of needs as expressed by community groups throughout the city. The goal is symbolized by a motto carved on a bridge between two main buildings at the campus entryway: “Education in the Service of the Community.” The impressive results of one cluster of examples drawn from throughout Portland were recently summarized in a symposium of nine essays published in Administrative Theory and Praxis (Volume 21, No. 1, 1999).
The collaboration of Connecticut College and New London is another powerful case in point. In the last several years, the college has invested $2.6 million in downtown buildings, created an academic Center for Community Action and Public Policy, established a new vice president position focused on the community, opened Connecticut College Downtown, as well as initiated a new academic program designed “to help meet significant and quantifiable goals that correspond to real improvements in the quality of life in the New London area through inclusive partnerships with residents and governmental, non-profit and private sectors. The overarching goal of those efforts is that members of the college and wider community will become more “effective citizen-leaders’.” (Connecticut College release, “Connecticut College and New London: An Overview,” December 20, 1999)
These examples could be multiplied. Some are private institutions such as Trinity College. Some are public ones such as California State University, Monterey. Despite a broad range of powerful illustrations, however, the leaders of many colleges and universities are adept at suggesting reasons why those examples do not fit their campuses. One common rationale is that the leader views the nation or even the globe as the institution’s primary community, a comment I have heard from a president of Harvard when asked why it did not focus more attention on Cambridge. Civic engagement can be fruitful in relation to communities much larger than the immediate surroundings of a campus—state, regional, national or worldwide. But involvement in those larger settings should not be viewed as a substitute for civic participation in improving the environs of a campus. Another common claim is that any efforts to assist the surrounding community would take resources from the academic enterprise. Over and over, however, campus investments in the civic life of the surrounding community have been shown also to be sound investments in the academic strength of the campus. In short, these and other arguments can be persuasively answered, but too often the dialogue needed even to raise them is never begun.
It should be no surprise that in most circumstances the two strands of civic responsibility preparing students for active citizenship and institutional civic engagement go together. In general, the first is much more difficult to develop than the second because the first requires the active involvement of a significant share of the faculty and staff, as well as students, while the second is more directly dependant on the administration. But both strands are important, and promoting one is usually a key step in enhancing the other.

The need for dialogue
One need not accept the arguments for viewing civic responsibility as a key public purpose of higher education to conclude that it is long past time to promote public dialogue on the issue. That dialogue must not be limited to those in higher education. A language is needed to describe what is meant by the public purposes of higher education. A set of strategies also is required to encourage serious, extended debate about those purposes and how best to further them.


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