Pope Center probes dearth of citizenship education in colleges and universities

The latest commentary from the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy features professor Wilfred McClay‘s observations about the lack of education in citizenship among American colleges and universities.

[W]e need to pay more attention to the internationalization of the American academy, including the steadily growing number of foreign students in our universities. Those students represent a source of much-needed enrollment and tuition revenues. Their presence gives enlivening variety to our campuses, exposing the American-born to a taste of the larger world. What is not to like about that?

For one thing, as educational researchers such as Chris R. Glass of Old Dominion University and Elizabeth Gareis of Baruch College have reported, our universities are doing a terrible job with the integration of their international students. Between the cross-cultural inadequacies of native-born students and the self-congregating tendencies of foreign students, the result in many cases has been an increasingly tense and anomic campus life.

And there is another side to the integration problem, involving not only the neglect of international students, but also the neglect of the institutional mission of any American college or university: the formation of young people into fully informed and fully equipped citizens of the United States, knowledgeable about their own history and institutions.

A personal story will help to make that point.

Several years ago, I spent a year as a visiting professor at a small graduate school that was oriented toward public policy. Its course offerings and faculty reflected the kind of task-oriented training that public sector employers want from prospective employees. But the school also had a prescribed sequence of courses that sought to teach students about the philosophical and constitutional grounding of American society.

The school was also highly tuition-dependent and had reached deeply into the foreign-student pool. Those students were something of a life preserver. But while their presence enlivened the classroom, their presence also constrained what I was able to accomplish.

Instead of teaching my students how to intelligently appropriate the knowledge and traditions and historical memories of America, I found it necessary to teach as if those traditions were to be regarded neutrally, a view from nowhere carrying no inherent weight. The classes had become something different from what the school had intended them to be.

My experience impressed upon me that, in addition to the ideological and political constraints facing professors today, the presence of an international classroom and student body also forms a serious constraint, particularly with a view toward helping our students come into a fuller ownership of their civilizational heritage.

Thus does an admissions policy that swells the balance sheet but takes no account of the school’s larger mission run the risk of undermining the institution’s very reason for being.

Mitch Kokai / Senior Political Analyst

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. He joined JLF in December 2005 as director of communications. That followed more than four years as chie...