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Educating Citizens: Preparing America's Undergraduates for Lives of Moral and Civic Responsibility

By Anne Colby, Thomas Ehrlich, Elizabeth Beaumont, and Jason Stephens
352 pages
ISBN: 0-7879-6515-4
$30.00 (hardcover)

Reviewed by

Geoffrey W. Chase

Dean, Division of Undergraduate Studies
San Diego State University


Educating Citizens: Preparing America's Undergraduates for Lives of Moral and Civic Responsibility focuses on one of the longstanding commitments of higher education in the United States: education for civic life. In doing so, it draws on a national commitment nearly 300 years old, but it also looks to the future. Anne Colby, a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and Thomas Ehrlich, also a senior scholar at the Foundation and a past president of Indiana University, believe we are at a critical moment in our history, one in which it is imperative for us to further our commitment to prepare students for moral and civic responsibility. In this respect, the book also reflects a national conversation currently underway about the role of undergraduate education. This conversation is being carried on in many arenas and is echoed in both the work of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), specifically in the Greater Expectations initiative, and the American Democracy Project that is part of the Association of American State Colleges and Universities (AASCU). What sets this book apart, and what makes it such an important book, is the way the authors pursue their agendas.

Educating Citizens begins with a narrative, a powerful story about a young woman, Virginia Durr, who attended Wellesley College in the early 1920s. Coming from a family in Birmingham, Alabama that held racist beliefs, Durr began a journey at Wellesley that led eventually to her becoming involved in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. This story, recounted in Durr's own words and in the words of the authors, makes several dramatic points. The first of these is that undergraduates are profoundly affected by the experiences they have. The second is that when undergraduates focus at least in part on a commitment regarding a relationship with the larger society, they are likely to experience positive change. The third is that the process of learning and development, and the ways those interact with curricula, courses, programs, and broader college experiences, are extraordinarily complex. Educating Citizens does an excellent job of explicating all three of these points.

This book is particularly useful because it weaves together specific practices drawn from colleges and universities with careful research that is both historical and philosophical. At its core, Educating Citizens thus rests on a strong commitment to undergraduate education that contributes to social life and on an extensive examination of colleges and universities in the United States. This examination led the authors to identify twelve very different institutions that have managed to build campus cultures that help students develop as citizens. These twelve campuses--Alverno College, Tusculum College, Duke University, Portland State University, Spelman College, Kapi'olani Community College, the US Air Force Academy, Turtle Mountain Community College, Messiah College, California State University Monterey Bay, Notre Dame University, and the College of St. Catherine--represent broad diversity and provide much of the detail for this book. Throughout, the authors do an excellent job of telling stories and providing examples from these colleges and universities that both support and shape their arguments.

The book begins, following the story about Virginia Durr, with a cogently articulated argument about the need to educate students for citizenship. Here the authors define civic and moral education as that which contributes to and reflects colleges' and universities' highest sense of purpose. In this regard, Educating Citizens suggests that those of us in higher education should be helping students develop moral and civic maturity, a complex combination of understanding, motivation, and skills for transforming informed judgments into action.

In the second chapter, the authors consider education for moral and civic responsibility in a broader undergraduate context. This chapter alone is worth the price of the book. In it, the authors describe in realistic terms the real challenges we face if we wish to increase our commitment of educating for citizenship, but they also note reasons for hope. Thus, while their characterization of undergraduate education necessarily refers to the significant structural challenges embedded there--the curriculum itself, faculty specialization, faculty autonomy, faculty rewards, a changing student body--they also speak to "hopeful" developments. Many of these hopeful developments come in the form of descriptions drawn from the twelve institutions that are highlighted in the book.

In the final analysis, this book is not just a report of institutions that have already achieved important progress with moral and civic education. It is instead a book that, once it has made the argument for such an education, goes on to suggest in important ways how institutions that have not achieved the levels of those highlighted here can nevertheless take steps in that direction. Here is perhaps where the book will be most useful for many readers. Without belaboring the point, the authors present a systemic picture of transformation and discuss how many different facets and aspects of institutional life can become, in relation to each other and as points of entry, avenues to change.

A good part of the book is devoted to explicating the facets of the twelve campuses chosen as case studies that have allowed a commitment to civic education to emerge and to be sustained. In considering these twelve campuses, the authors examine closely the need for leadership with these efforts and note that, while at some institutions effective leadership came from the presidential level, at other institutions leadership may have come from faculty or from centers and institutes. Similarly, as the authors turn to examine the many pedagogical and curricular strategies used by these twelve colleges and universities to promote civic responsibility and engagement among their students, they paint a rich picture of how many ways there are to achieve this goal. The book is thus useful for nearly everyone who seeks information about how to further efforts to promote civic education.

At the same time, Educating Citizens does not set out only to provide answers or to suggest that there are clear and easy steps to changing undergraduate education. While the authors do an excellent job of illustrating how the twelve campuses they review have made significant progress, they are not sanguine about the difficulties these or other campuses face. This acknowledgment of the significant challenges is woven throughout the book, but comes to the fore most directly in the final two chapters. In "Assessment in Moral and Civic Education," the authors touch on the many ways that educators can assess the effectiveness of their courses, programs, and the overall college or university experience. They also acknowledge that programs designed to foster moral and civic development are, like most programs in higher education, seldom assessed and they see this as unfortunate since more assessment could strengthen these very programs. At the same time, the approach toward assessment represented in this chapter is somewhat ambivalent. Although assessment is held up as a desired activity because of how it can help strengthen programs, the authors "do not call for more assessment lightly," (p. 258) and they suggest that program assessment "is extremely labor intensive and difficult to do well" (p. 267). The chapter on assessment thus also reflects what many faculty and administrators feel: that assessment may be a good thing, but that it is just too much work. This is unfortunate because program assessment done well does not have to be extremely labor intensive, and it can be one of the avenues through which an institution can identify goals and outcomes that may help students develop the sensibilities they need to be engaged and productive citizens.

In the final chapter, "Bringing Moral and Civic Learning to Center Stage," the authors present a series of principles that campuses can use to consider the degree to which they foster the kind of education called for here. This set of principles, and the implicit questions that derive from these principles, is a useful tally of the central ideas discussed throughout the book. Using these principles would be a good place to start if educators on a campus wish to move undergraduate education in this direction.

The authors conclude by noting that Educating Citizens was completed less than a year after the attacks of September 11, 2001. As they note, those of us in higher education have critical roles to play as we consider how to prepare students for a world in which it is increasingly important for us to protect understanding and freedom. Although the attacks of 9/11 are not the reason for this book, the authors highlight its importance. Educating Citizens is an important book at an important time. It reminds us of the tremendous responsibility we have in the life of our students and the global society. It is a book that I hope will be read, discussed, and debated widely in higher education circles.

Posted August 25, 2004

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board. ©2004 by Geoffrey W. Chase.

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