Civics and the Spirit of Liberty

By Ehrlich, Thomas | The Christian Science Monitor, May 13, 2003 | Go to article overview

Civics and the Spirit of Liberty


Ehrlich, Thomas, The Christian Science Monitor


At an "I Am an American Day" ceremony in Central Park in the midst of war 60 years ago, Judge Learned Hand spoke to thousands, including many new citizens. "The spirit of liberty," he said "is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias...."

Those civic virtues are much needed today, as America again deals with armed conflict. Over the past several years, my colleagues and I at the Carnegie Foundation have been examining how American campuses are promoting the development of students as ethical, committed citizens, imbued with the spirit of liberty.

Our research suggests that if programs are intentionally designed with these outcomes in mind, colleges can establish a groundwork that students later build on. The undergraduate experience can shape the intellectual frameworks and habits of mind that students bring to adult experiences. It can change the way they understand responsibilities central to their sense of self and teach them to offer and demand evidence and justification for their moral and political positions.

But, regrettably, our research found that undergraduate moral and civic education is not a priority on most campuses.

National studies show, for example, a considerable increase of cheating in college in recent decades, suggesting that students don't share values of academic integrity.

There is substantial evidence that the overall decline in civic and political participation is especially pronounced among young adults - they vote less often than their elders and show lower levels of social trust and knowledge of politics.

A few institutions build moral and civic learning into the heart of what they do with undergraduates. They make a conscious effort to reach all students and use multiple approaches to address the full range of moral and civic development. We found a broad range of institutions doing this - from small religious colleges to public urban universities, and elite private universities to military academies and community colleges. And they do so in ways that ensure a full spectrum of perspectives - conservative to liberal - are considered.

Among undergraduates at every campus are some who look for ways to contribute to something larger than themselves - students who are inspired by moral ideals or who are passionate about social or political issues. They're primed to take advantage of the many ways a college education can deepen those convictions and bring them to a higher level of competence.

But most students need help to further these goals. …

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