Jonathan Marks, a politics professor at Ursinus College, argues that we need to think more deeply about how liberal education and civic engagement education go together. For Marks, the place to begin this conversation is to “acknowledge the tension between liberal education and civic engagement suggested by the example of Socrates.”‘
Marks makes some good points. If liberal arts education is indeed “animated by the spirit of Socrates,” then at its core is a belief that the “unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.” The gurus of civic education assume that “we already know what a good life and just life is.”
Here is a taste of Marks’s essay at Inside Higher Ed:
But if liberal arts colleges do not teach students directly to be good citizens or to serve others, why should the public continue to subsidize them?
The defender of liberal education has two answers. First, the needs of an educational community devoted to inquiry overlap the needs of a democratic political community. In the course of articulating and testing their own views with the help of peers and of what Davidson calls “the wisdom of the ages,” students cultivate important virtues. These virtues, including the courage to state and subject to examination one’s deepest beliefs, and the self-restraint, civility, and sympathy required to deliberate with others, suit democratic politics, in which citizens must learn to struggle over fundamental differences without coming apart.
Second, civic engagement education benefits from being pursued in the context and spirit of liberal education. At a liberal arts college, curricular and co-curricular civic engagement work should draw students’ attention to fundamental questions political or social actors ought to consider: What is a good society? What qualities of character are conducive to bringing such a society into being? How, if at all, does participating advance my own good? How, if at all, will my participation advance the common good?
While it is and should be conceivable that students who reflect seriously on such questions will opt out of civic engagement, a society that supports liberal education bets that the more common result will be reflective and intelligent participation in associational life.