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December 2, 2002

Bok makes case for 'civic education'

By Michael Terrazas

American colleges and universities may be doing fine in training students to enter the working world, but they’re not doing nearly enough to prepare young people for the job of “citizen.”

This was the point Derek Bok drove home to a Cox Hall crowd gathered Nov. 25 for “In Celebration of Scholarship,” an event to honor Emory’s newest group of distinguished chairholders. Bok, president emeritus and Three Hundredth Anniversary University Professor at Harvard, was the featured speaker, talking about “The Hole in the Curriculum: How Faculties Overlook Important Educational Needs.”

Bok, the author of several books on both government and well as higher education, said that in determining the modern liberal arts curriculum, American universities have committed two “oversights”: for roughly a century up until the 1970s, they failed to offer courses that help students think ethically in their lives and professions; and, to this day, universities do not provide a “civic” education, through which students are taught and encouraged to act as responsible, efficacious members of society.

“The undergraduate experience falls short,” said Bok, claiming that studies show each generation of college students since the early 1960s has reported a weaker interest in politics than the one before it; engineering, business and education students all are “overwhelmingly uninterested” in the subject, he said, and their stated degrees of interest have even been shown to drop during their undergraduate years.

“It’s not just that we don’t prepare them as citizens,” Bok said. “We collaborate in this decline in interest.”

While lauding a recent trend of U.S. college students to participate in public service projects, Bok lamented that these very students are not trained to think critically about why such projects—such as volunteering in homeless shelters—are even necessary in the first place.

“This is a real failure of education,” he said. “[Students] are never encouraged to ask why we have so many homeless people in the richest nation on earth.”

The other failing, that of not providing a moral education, was addressed in the 1970s as universities across the country began revamping their curricula to reflect a culture that was finally beginning to embrace its diversity, Bok said, adding that a similar enlightenment may be necessary to foster civic education. All of the activities available to students that train them for civic participation—working with extracurricular groups or in student government, for example—are optional.

“Citizenship,” Bok said, “is not optional.”

The consequences for ignoring this responsibility, he said, could be the realization of a prediction made 150 years ago by Alexis de Tocqueville: that American democracy’s single greatest threat is not aggression from without, but rather apathy from within.

“These warnings seem more relevant than ever today,” said Bok, adding that less than a third of the U.S. electorate under age 35 votes even in presidential elections, while more than 60 percent of over-65 voters turn out. “The current level of political apathy is responsible for more problems than we give it credit for.”

A reception followed Bok’s remarks, which themselves followed congratulations from Michael Kuhar, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Neuro-pharmacology and a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar, for the University’s newest appointees to distinguished chairs.