Civics and the spirit of liberty

At an "I Am an American Day" ceremony in Central Park in the midst of war 60 years ago, Judge Learned Hand spoke to thousands, including many new citizens. "The spirit of liberty," he said "is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias...."

Those civic virtues are much needed today, as America again deals with armed conflict. Over the past several years, my colleagues and I at the Carnegie Foundation have been examining how American campuses are promoting the development of students as ethical, committed citizens, imbued with the spirit of liberty.

Our research suggests that if programs are intentionally designed with these outcomes in mind, colleges can establish a groundwork that students later build on. The undergraduate experience can shape the intellectual frameworks and habits of mind that students bring to adult experiences. It can change the way they understand responsibilities central to their sense of self and teach them to offer and demand evidence and justification for their moral and political positions.

But, regrettably, our research found that undergraduate moral and civic education is not a priority on most campuses.

National studies show, for example, a considerable increase of cheating in college in recent decades, suggesting that students don't share values of academic integrity.

There is substantial evidence that the overall decline in civic and political participation is especially pronounced among young adults - they vote less often than their elders and show lower levels of social trust and knowledge of politics.

A few institutions build moral and civic learning into the heart of what they do with undergraduates. They make a conscious effort to reach all students and use multiple approaches to address the full range of moral and civic development. We found a broad range of institutions doing this - from small religious colleges to public urban universities, and elite private universities to military academies and community colleges. And they do so in ways that ensure a full spectrum of perspectives - conservative to liberal - are considered.

Among undergraduates at every campus are some who look for ways to contribute to something larger than themselves - students who are inspired by moral ideals or who are passionate about social or political issues. They're primed to take advantage of the many ways a college education can deepen those convictions and bring them to a higher level of competence.

But most students need help to further these goals. That help should come in three arenas: curriculum, including both general education and the major; extracurricular activities; and the campus culture, including honor codes, residence hall life, and spontaneous "teachable moments," as well as cultural routines and practices. Weaving moral and civic issues into each student's life should be an explicit campus goal.

At Duke University, for example, all students are required to take two courses in ethical inquiry. This is one of a number of steps to create a "community of communities," as Duke president Nan Keohane calls it. The committee that designed this approach saw it as a "moral primer," enabling students to think about their own moral compasses. Moral and civic issues have been integrated into the first-year writing program, and the university reports that students' writing has improved significantly along with their capacity to understand complex ethical and social concerns.

In addition to incorporating moral and civic issues into course work, students often undergo dramatic transformations through participation in extracurricular programs. For example, in Atlanta, Spelman College students in a sociology and anthropology club called Sassafras apply what they're learning in classes to projects that help revitalize low- income neighborhoods.

It is also important to have a campus climate that supports positive values like honesty, open-mindedness, and respect for others. This means not only having a strong honor code, though that is certainly important, but also tangible symbols of a college's values.

For example, a bridge at Oregon's Portland State University linking two buildings at the main campus entrance, proclaims in large letters, "Let Knowledge Serve the City." The university has many programs in place to make that student-initiated motto a reality. Service to the community and community partnerships are key elements of curricular and extracurricular activities and also provide the focus for much faculty research.

We've seen some wonderful success stories like these, but we've also seen too many campuses where the moral and civic development of students is ignored. If we're fighting to protect our basic moral values, freedoms, and democracy, we must do all we can to ensure that succeeding generations gain the understanding, skills, and motivations needed to preserve and promote the spirit of liberty so eloquently articulated by Judge Hand.

Thomas Ehrlich is a senior scholar with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and a former law clerk for Judge Learned Hand.

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