May 8, 2015
President, Campus Compact

An article in yesterday’s Chronicle of Higher Education discussed the emphasis on workforce preparation in governors’ approaches to higher education funding. The headline called out Republican governors in particular, but anyone following the issue knows that public officials from both parties frequently discuss higher education as if its sole purpose were the preparation of students for careers.

There is a great deal to be said on the topic, and I want to make just one point—or perhaps a point-and-a-half.

The Chronicle article attributes to Jenna A. Robinson, president of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, the view that conservatives like her, “want higher education to sharpen its focus on skills and knowledge that are necessary in the marketplace.” The article then directly quotes Dr. Robinson as follows: “A lot of conservatives think that what students are learning is out of the normal range of what is necessary to be a successful citizen.”

Now it’s possible that this quotation is taken out of context, that Dr. Robinson didn’t mean to collapse the concept of skills that are necessary in the marketplace into the concept of what is necessary to be a successful citizen. Whether that conceptual move is hers or the reporters, the main point is that we all recognize the impoverished conception of citizenship at its core.

So the point I want to make is this: When we argue that higher education should prepare students for their lives as citizens, not merely their lives as professionals, we run up against the fact that our political discourse lacks a strong conception of citizenship. Sometimes, citizenship is thought of merely as a legal status. Frequently, the term taxpayer shows up in sentences precisely where citizen belongs.

The idea that a citizen is a person with the capacity to think, speak, and act in pursuit of the public good is alien to our public discourse. So when we say higher education should prepare students for citizenship, very few of the people we are talking to have any idea what we are talking about.

I still have one more half-point: We make a version of the same mistake if we allow meeting the needs of the vulnerable to stand in for citizenship. We make this mistake in practice when we reduce civic engagement to volunteerism or service. Lending a helping hand to people who need it is a worthy activity. Experiences of service, when framed by intellectual engagement that contextualize service activities, can be a powerful catalyst of student learning. But the willingness to help one’s neighbors on its own is not citizenship any more than is the ability to earn a living.

Individual and community self-sufficiency are building blocks of a strong democratic society. Marketable skills and a willingness to help others are, therefore, publicly useful. But democratic societies need members with the capacities proper to citizenship—the capacity to listen, to analyze, to interpret, to deliberate, to compromise, to take a stand—and higher education plays a crucial role in cultivating those capacities.

As any economist will tell you, free markets create incentives for people to develop marketable skills. But the skills of citizenship must be actively cultivated by all of us who care about the future of democracy.

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