It’s Time to (Re-)Embrace Civic Virtue in Higher Education

Both top-level administrators and PR representatives for universities often publicly decry the allegation that their institution indoctrinates its students by pushing political ideology on them. They claim that universities and higher education are all about knowledge. This is captured in the oft-repeated remark that the university “doesn’t teach you what to think but how to think.”  Critical thinking skills, discipline-specific content, and the analysis of data are what universities are about, so say the defenders of higher education. 

The charge of “indoctrination” is typically made by avowed conservatives who have their own ideological agenda, and who lack an appreciation of the difference between doctrine and pluralistic education. It thus makes sense that university leaders would respond defensively to such a claim. But the assertion that higher education is only about the sharing of knowledge belies the history of American universities as public institutions, both in terms of the values upon which they were founded and their original purposes.

While there is a long history of church-based and seminary-linked universities (e.g., both Harvard and Yale at their inceptions), the public universities formed in the U.S. soon after the American Revolution were designed not only to educate but also to fulfill a sense of civic obligation: to nurture the values of democracy and to provide graduates with the skills necessary to serve as civic leaders who can help to solve community problems. This mission continued with the Merrill Land Grant universities, which opened higher education up to a broader population. The values upon which these universities were founded were those of the specific ideologies at the root of American culture, namely classical liberalism and classical republicanism. From classical liberalism the universities adopted the values of pluralism, toleration, equality, individualism, limited government, and love of democracy. [i] And from classical republicanism, they adopted the sense of collective duty and obligation that ties us to one another and makes democracy worth pursuing.

In today’s America, we need our universities to return to their original mission: to create active, informed, and responsive democratic citizens.[ii]

So what if instead of denying that higher education promotes ideological values, universities embraced their role as bastions of classical liberalism and civic virtue? What if administrators were open with their students about the fact that university faculty are committed to teaching critical thinking because that is a skill democracy requires if it is to survive the actions of those who want to concentrate power in the hands of a few?

What if faculty were honest with their students, explaining that students are being influenced by the university, but for an ethical rather than a political purpose: to value the principles necessary for the continued functioning of a healthy democratic state? What if faculty were transparent about the fact that this process of political socialization doesn’t begin in college, but is at the root of every individual’s educational journey, from kindergarten to college to any post-graduate program attended? 

And what if the university were to trumpet civic responsibility and the belief that community needs must often be privileged over those of individuals in order for us all to thrive?   

Covid-19 has provided an opportunity for the public university to reclaim its role as a champion of civic virtue. But the university must seize this opportunity.

The recent decision by Indiana University to require Covid-19 vaccinations for all students, faculty, and staff – a policy that many other universities have also embraced – is a step in the right direction. In addition to vaccinations, IU and its sister institutions have also mandated masks in the classroom. The justification these universities provide for their policies relies on the language of science: the current evidence strongly supports the claim that vaccinations and masks limit the spread of Covid-19; therefore, requiring both is logical.[iii]  

But the explanation could go further and be more impactful if it were framed through the issues of collective responsibility and the obligation to protect our fellow citizens. These universities need to be clear that their prioritization of public health over individual choice comes from and reinforces the values of a healthy democratic culture. While the conversation about medical data is important, it should not be the only context in which vaccine and mask mandates are discussed. Claims about the threat mandates pose to personal liberty should be met with good-faith responses that acknowledge the value of personal liberty but clearly articulate our collective civic duty that outweighs that liberty when lives literally depend upon it.

This is my hope: that the public university will stop worrying so much about its image and instead returns to its mission, proudly asserting itself as a bastion of not only knowledge but also the civic virtues that constitute the foundation of American democratic society.

By Margot Morgan
Assistant Professor of Political Science
Indiana University Southeast


[i] Barry Checkoway, “Renewing the Civic Mission of the American Research University,” Journal of Higher Education, vol. 72, no. 2, 2001, pp. 125-147;  Suzanne W. Morse, Renewing Civic Capacity: Preparing College Students for Service and Citizenship, ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report 8,1989 (Washington, D.C.: ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education); Matthew Hartley and Elizabeth L. Hollander, “The Elusive Ideal: Civic Learning and Higher Education,” The Institutions of American Democracy: The Public Schools, eds. S. Fuhrman and M. Lazerson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 252-276.

[ii] Numerous individuals and organizations tied to the university are currently engaged in this work. In addition to the readings above, see the work of Campus Compact (https://compact.org), especially the Wingspread Declaration by Harry Boyte and Elizabeth Hollander (https://compact.org/wingspread-declaration-on-the-civic-responsibilities-of-research-universities/); and the work of the American Democracy Project, an initiative of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (https://www.aascu.org/programs/ADP/).

[iii] See, for example, Indiana University’s website explaining its vaccination policy: https://www.iu.edu/covid/prevention/covid-19-vaccine.html. While the FAQ page includes answers to 34 questions, all are related to the logistics of vaccinations, documentation, and exemption status. Not one of the questions asks why vaccinations are required – and therefore no explanation is given.

Additional Reading:

Berkowitz, Peter. Virtue and the Making of Modern Liberalism. Princeton UP, 1999

Locke, John. Second Treatise of Government. edited by C.B McPherso.1690. Hackett, 1980

Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Discourses, edited by Bernard Crick, translated by Leslie J. Walker.1517. Penguin, 1998

Rothblatt, Sheldon. “Yet Another Plea for Civic Virtue.” Liberal Education, vol . 98, no.2, 2010 www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/yet-another-plea-civic-virtue. Accessed 5 Aug. 2020

Wood, Gordon. “Classical Republicanism and the American Revolution.” Chicago-Kent Law Review, vol 66, no. 1, 1980, pp.13-18

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