Phi Beta Cons

Teaching Citizenship

More and more, academics are suggesting some sort of forced “civic engagement” or “service learning” to be a central part of a liberal education. Ursinus College professor Jonathan Marks has crafted a must-read argument against direct teaching of participatory civic engagement on general theoretical grounds. Briefly, he says that the purpose of a liberal education is to instill an independent, objective, questioning nature — something that is at odds with academic conceptions of teaching civic engagement,which are usually based upon a dogma that performing certain tasks of service to the less fortunate in college will necessarily make one a better citizen for life.

Marks’s argument rests on an understanding that open societies take “a gamble” by expecting the deeply reflective individuals produced by liberal educations to choose to be good citizens. And somehow that gamble pays off. It has some resemblance to the trust that we place in the “Invisible Guiding Hand” to direct resources to their most efficient use. Both go against the collectivist mindset — they cannot believe that the sum of individual choices can be superior to their own heavy-handed dictates. 

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