Educating for citizenship in the “crucible moment”

Four people working together sitting around a table and looking at reports

Since ancient times, a liberal arts education has been closely linked—in theory and practice—to democratic citizenship. For the past half century, however, we have neglected civic education, as more colleges and universities have stressed workforce training and/or STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education. These things are important, of course; students worry about getting a job after they graduate, and many of the best-paying jobs are in STEM fields. At the same time, we can ill-afford to neglect civic education. Whether students major in engineering or philosophy, business or English, they need the knowledge and skills to participate in civic life.

Our neglect of civic education is clearly evident in declining measures of the “civic health” of our nation. Over the past 50 years, there have been dramatic declines in virtually every measure of civic engagement, from participation in national politics to involvement in local community organizations. Knowledge of our nation’s history and civic traditions is at an all-time low, and many young people have completely “tuned out” news and civic affairs. Political cynicism and social narcissism are rampant, and more and more Americans are pessimistic about the future.

The danger of all this is that it puts our democracy at risk. A healthy democracy depends upon informed, engaged citizens. When ordinary citizens withdraw from the civic arena, the void is filled by special interests, professional propagandists, and self-serving demagogues. If we hope to remain a nation “of, by, and for the people,” we need to address the crisis of democratic education in the United States.

In 2012, a coalition of educational institutions, government agencies, scholarly associations, and civic foundations came together to develop a new vision of civic education for the twenty-first century. Their report, entitled A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future, argued for making civic learning an “integral component” of American education at every level, “from grade school through graduate school, across all fields of study.” It also called for a more comprehensive approach to civic education, one that goes beyond traditional approaches focusing narrowly on U.S. history and the laws and institutions of government. This new vision stresses not only historical and civic literacy, but also communication and critical thinking skills. Most importantly, it focuses on the ethical responsibilities of democratic citizenship. Emphasizing the need for hands-on practice actually “doing” democracy, A Crucible Moment called for teaching communicative competencies within a strong ethical framework—a framework built upon a culture of mutual respect and shared conceptions of the “public good.”

Reports like A Crucible Moment present an opportunity for liberal arts disciplines to reclaim their traditional mission of educating for citizenship. In order to do that, however, we must return to those areas of study that historically have been at the heart of the liberal arts: communication skills, historical and civic knowledge, information literacy, critical thinking and analysis, and the ethics of democratic life.

In my own field of rhetoric and communication studies, there has been a renewed emphasis on the theory, practice, and ethics of argumentation and debate, and on promoting deliberative models of classroom instruction across the curriculum. In my webinar, I discuss these efforts, as well as a number of specific programs and initiatives that the Center for Democratic Deliberation at Penn State has designed to combat the civic crisis in America. These include a successful online deliberation program for high school students, K-12 teachers’ institutes on classroom deliberation, and Voices of Democracy, our online educational resource encouraging the study of great speeches and debates. I also discuss efforts to “reinvent” co-curricular debate as a mechanism of civic education, as well as town-gown collaborations, like involving college students in Public Issues Forums as participants or even facilitators.

These and other initiatives already have proven effective at encouraging civic engagement at the local level, but much work remains to be done. If the liberal arts are to thrive in today’s colleges and universities, they need to return to their roots in civic education. More importantly, our democracy needs the liberal arts; the future of our democracy depends on how well we educate our students for civic life.



About the Author
Michael Hogan

Michael Hogan, Ph.D.

Michael Hogan is the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Rhetoric and the founding director of the Center for Democratic Deliberation at the Pennsylvania State University. He has served as a scholarly advisor to the National Constitution Center and is co-director of Voices of Democracy, an NEH-funded educational website. Hogan is the author, co-author, or editor of eight books and more than 60 articles, book chapters, and reviews. He has won a number of scholarly awards, including the National Communication Association’s Distinguished Scholar Award. Before moving to Penn State in 1997, he taught at the University of Virginia, Indiana University, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.