After seeing so many utilitarian and, to be honest, philistine political comments about higher education and culture—the most recent came from Jeb Bush—it was in a sense refreshing to read President Obama’s exchange with novelist Marilynne Robinson, presented in two parts in the New York Review of Books. (Readers of this site should not neglect Paul Seaton’s very fine reflection on Robinson’s collection of essays that provides the context for her conversation with the President.)
One of the most striking things the President said was this:
The thoughtful and meticulous analysis by our friend Joseph Knippenberg got me thinking about civic engagement. Well, that’s not quite true. I was already thinking about it while trying get a book done on the technocratic threat to higher education (which is greater than the politically correct threat to higher education, although the two are not unrelated).
There is an expert-driven trend in higher education–facilitated by foundations, the American Political Science Association, professors of political science and professors of education–to transform the teaching of political science through civic engagement. The literature on this is full of jargon and otherwise depressingly low in its cognitive pay grade. The consensus seems to be the need for a third way of studying politics. One approach, allegedly rigorously scientific, is the nonpartisan detachment of the behaviorist. Another is the textual approach of political philosophers, who talk about what Plato said Socrates said while hanging out in the marketplace but never actually take students to such a public forum. The third way is for students to learn through actually participating in political life.
Though Constitution Day has come and gone (it was September 17), it may still be appropriate to honor the enactment of our Founding charter by looking into the question of “civic literacy” and “civic engagement.” By the first, I mean knowledge largely about American history and political institutions. The second is meant to denote participating in the political process, passively by voting and actively by contributing to and working on campaigns, trying to influence others’ votes, attending political events, contacting officials, signing petitions, and writing letters to the editor.