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

Robert A. Scott (President, Adelphi University, New York, USA)

On the Horizon

ISSN: 1074-8121

Article publication date: 1 December 2004



Scott, R.A. (2004), "Educating Citizens: Preparing America's Undergraduates for Lives of Moral and Civic Responsibility", On the Horizon, Vol. 12 No. 4, pp. 160-161.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

If you believe that higher education should be as much about developing character and citizenship as it is about advancing careers and commerce, this book is for you. If you believe that, “it is irrelevant whether … racial classifications are drawn by those who wish to oppress a race or by those who have a sincere desire to help the previously oppressed” (as Justice Clarence Thomas declared), this book will challenge you (Fish, 2000, p. 8). If you believe that “speech codes are shots fired in a holy war in which universities are pushed in the direction of becoming doctrinal institutions bent on punishing heresies that deviate from orthodox beliefs”, or react negatively to such thinking, then this book will be an ally in considering the assertion (Fish, 2000, p. 4 and 5).

I believe that a college education consists in knowledge, skills, abilities, and values, and that we educators should not shy away the last, including the values of teamwork, community responsibility and involvement, respect for others, independence, egalitarian views of gender roles, fairness, and equity. Education is about transformation, transforming lives, not simply transactions. Teaching, therefore, is not simply about transmitting information, but about transforming what we know, how we think, and how we think we know. The purpose of education is to prepare graduates to understand that knowing how to do something is not sufficient reason to do it. Education is about “ends”; training is about “means”. Educated students should know the difference.

The authors of this excellent volume that describes case studies which help illuminate philosophy, policies, and practice are Anne Colby, a specialist in the psychology of moral development; Tom Ehrlich, former law school dean, university president, and strong advocate for civic engagement by undergraduate students; Elizabeth Beaumont, research associate and colleague of the first two at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching; and Jason Stephens, research assistant at Carnegie and doctoral candidate at Stanford University.

The book is in response to the dismay often expressed over the excessive individualism and civic disengagement displayed in the US, and the calls for greater moral and civic renewal if American society is to retain the ideals that led to its founding. Several reports on these topics are cited. The basic assumptions are that college provides a preparation for citizenship as well as for the professions, and that in preparing students for life, college can advance their abilities for honorable work and personal integrity as well.

For those who question higher education's responsibilities for anything other than disciplinary knowledge, we must remember that institutions convey values and moral messages to students by how they act and what they act on – out of class as well as within. In the USA, at least, higher education has had a major role in preparing citizens to participate in a democratic system; therefore, the values of that system should be taught in schools. Thus, colleges, and schools, should “stand for values that are fundamental to their highest sense of purpose …” (p. 12). The authors identify three broad categories of moral and civic maturity, including:

  1. 1.

    Moral and civic understanding.

  2. 2.

    Moral and civic motivation, or capacity.

  3. 3.

    Skills for and practice in carrying out moral and civic responsibility (p. 12).

While some might assert that these are topics for a liberal arts curriculum only, the authors argue, persuasively I think, that these dimensions of liberal education should be required of all students. Otherwise, our accountants, engineers, nurses, and social workers, among others, will only know what to do but not whether to do it.

The audiences for this book are several, including faculty, staff, and trustees, as well as policy‐makers and others interested in higher education more broadly. The book includes chapters that provide an examination of impediments to making moral and civic education more central in the curriculum and reward systems in higher education; 12 case studies involving diverse institutions and how they foster student development and maturity across three dimensions, including connections with communities of various types; “moral and civic virtue, variously defined; and concerns for systemic social responsibility, or social justice”; research and theory; pedagogical approaches, including the teaching of ethics; incorporating moral and civic education throughout the curriculum; extracurricular opportunities; assessment; and principles for understanding moral and civic education (p. 14 and 15).

On balance, I found the book to be strong in its arguments and in anticipating rebuttals. I was especially impressed by the discussions of “socialization strategies”; alternative approaches to student learning; and “identity”.

Socializing students to a culture of moral and civic responsibility requires more than general education courses, liberal arts concentrations, and interdisciplinary dimensions to a major. The authors argue that the entire campus culture can reinforce classroom learning through rituals, ceremonies, symbols, and festivals that might include each student signing the campus honor code and bestowing university recognition on someone known as an exemplar of the goals fostered.

The sections on alternative methods for teaching and enhancing student learning are excellent summaries of practices such as service learning, collaborative learning, and problem‐based learning, and are helpful in explaining how moral and civic learning can be incorporated into the curriculum and taught. The authors discuss how these various practices in achieving these goals are related to a student's sense of identity. They conclude, “values, interests, moral and political beliefs and convictions, characteristic habits of moral interpretation, and a sense of one's own competence and efficacy can all be part of one's identity or sense of self” (p. 128).

However, I was not as impressed by the case studies or the institutions selected. Allegations of gender bias and rape at the Air Force Academy make one wonder why even a special unit of the Academy can be used as example of positive movement toward moral and civic development. Also, the discussions of the necessity of presidential leadership, faculty commitment, and progress toward goals rings hollow for institutions experiencing a change in leadership, as at Portland State. More time is needed to confirm the progress at these and the other institutions. In addition, the religious foundations of “excesssive individualism” and morality are not explored.

In conclusion, this volume is a theoretical treatise, a practitioner's manual, and a policy‐makers guide. For one who wonders about the implications for higher education of Internet Web sites being used as source material without students’ being grounded in facts, faith, and fear as distinct ways of “knowing”, this book is a gem. For those concerned about pervasive “moral relativism” which insists that every opinion is as worthy as another, this book helps us prepare students to evaluate others’ opinions, acknowledge evidence, and justify their own views.

Finally, I found encouragement in the conclusion that “higher education contributes to higher levels of moral judgment … A large body of research makes it clear that the experience of grappling with challenging moral issues in classroom discussions or in activities that require the resolution of conflicting opinions contributes significantly to the increasing maturity of individuals’ moral judgment” (p. 108). The hypotheses, the literature, the examples, and the reasoning leading to this point make this a valuable volume to read.


Fish, S. (2000), “What's sauce for one goose: the logic of academic freedom”, in Kahn, S.E. and Pavlich, D. (Eds), Academic Freedom and the Inclusive University, UBC Press, Toronto, p. 8.

Related articles