One of the tenets of liberal learning is that it brings the skills employers say they most value: critical thinking, good communication orally and in writing, the ability to solve open, unscripted problems, and a capacity to work in teams of people from disparate backgrounds.
On that last one: team building and working in — perhaps even leading — groups of people from cultural traditions unlike our own: are we really preparing our students for that?
Last month I attended the Searching for Democracy forum organized by the California Council for the Humanities. Two days of panels, speakers, and workshops boiled down civic engagement to — for me– two things:
- Self direction, or a sense of agency. Citizens participate if and only if they believe their choices will make a difference. Too often we teach civics in the deterministic mode: “here’s checks and balances and it all works fine when you leave it alone.” A better way is to teach it as the medium for making the changes you want: “how would this class get the city to add a stop sign to this intersection? Start asking around and figure it out.” I get that example from Lisa García Bedolla.
- Civility. Just as important as self-assertion is good listening, the ability to hear others out, and not to take it personally if you get outvoted.
I think of these as the grammatical first person and second person of democratic life: how I feel about me, how I feel about you. All our other trappings of democracy seemed, to me at least, to arise from those two.
Try it: take away the early American zeitgeist of Locke, Jefferson, de Toqueville, and think only of these two non-negotiables, agency and civility. Are there other structures that could facilitate them? I think so: few would say we have to organize collective self-determination around, say, three branches of government, or a bi-cameral legislature. What else characterizes effective collective action?
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal reminds us not to rush the Arabs into western-style elections. Bari Weiss interviews scholar Bernard Lewis on what to expect of the Arab Spring. Lewis points out that shared governance has a long history in Arab cultures, but that it doesn’t look like western democracy. For centuries of Arab history, “political leaders had to cut deals with various others—the leaders of the merchant guild, the craft guild, the scribes, the land owners and the like. Each guild chose its own leaders from within. ‘The rulers,’ says Mr. Lewis, ‘even the great Ottoman sultans, had to consult with these different groups in order to get things done.'”
Okay, now say you’re looking for ways to emphasize the relevance and value of general education, especially the courses from those departments too often in the cr0ss-hairs during budget downswings. Like say, ethnic studies. It seems the faculty whose expertise is other people would have a lot to add, in a world that’s getting smaller and collaborating more. I come away from the Searching for Democracy project and reading Bernard Lewis feeling like “oh, right. Of course.”
But can we make it real? Could we do something with GE in a big state, on a subject so urgent yet so under-appreciated, in a way that drives the message home?
Maybe. A pair of researchers at UC Davis is working on the Civility Project, a multiyear exploration of the ways public universities can foster peaceful interaction in a pluralistic society. Their immediate goal is to study and combat hate crimes on campuses. Longer term, work like theirs could make a real contribution to liberal learning, and the way it prepares our students.