Opinion | By Abandoning Civics, Colleges Helped Create the Culture Wars

Free speech is once again a flashpoint on college campuses. This year has seen at least 20 instances in which students or faculty members attempted to rescind invitations or to silence speakers. In March, law school students at our own institution made national news when they shouted down a conservative federal judge, Kyle Duncan. And by signing legislation that undermines academic freedom in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis is carrying out what is effectively a broad assault against higher education.

We believe that this intolerance of ideas is not just a consequence of an increasingly polarized society. We think it also results from the failure of higher education to provide students with the kind of shared intellectual framework that we call “civic education.” It is our responsibility as educators to equip students to live in a democratic society whose members will inevitably disagree on many things. To strengthen free speech on campuses, we need to return civic education to the heart of our curriculum.

Throughout the 20th century, many colleges and universities had a required first-year course that honed these skills. Typically, this course was known as Western Civ (short for “civilization”). Such courses became standard during the interwar period, as immigration transformed the student body and liberal democracy itself was under threat around the world.

Western Civ also served another, often unintentional, purpose: It provided a mutually intelligible set of references that situated students’ disagreements on common ground.

Generations of students grappled with Socrates’ argument that the rule of law cannot survive if people simply ignore laws they don’t support. By debating plausible answers, students learned to see disagreement as a necessary ingredient of both learning and of life. They also confronted hard questions about civil disobedience and social change. And the common references that students picked up in their first year provided a foundation for future conversations and courses.

The limitations of Western Civ are evident from its title. It exposed students to Western ideas only, implicitly (or sometimes explicitly) suggesting that these ideas were superior to those from other cultures.

Eventually, these limitations proved intractable. In 1987, activists at Stanford denounced the “European-Western and male bias” of the university’s first-year requirement, then called Western Culture. The course was replaced with a program that had no Western focus.

From 1964 to 2010, almost all selective schools (Columbia being an exception) abandoned first-year requirements featuring a common humanities curriculum. Instead, they opted for a “buffet” model, in which students could choose from various curricular tracks. Between 1995 and 2012, Stanford students could pick from around a dozen first-year humanities classes, from a course on gender roles in Chinese families to Technological Visions of Utopia. While many of these courses were excellent, they had no common core of readings nor any transparent rationale for why they were required.

Many colleges said the change was a pragmatic one, given the disagreements about which texts should be mandatory. We believe there was another reason universities turned toward an à la carte curriculum: They had come under the spell, like much of society at that time, of a free-market ideology. In this vision, individual choice and individual advancement take center stage. Requirements are recast as paternalistic; freedom is understood as doing as one pleases.

Freedom of choice is an important value. But without common foundations, it can lead to people shouting one another down. An educational model that leaves no room for a core curriculum shaped by the demands of 21st-century democracies leaves students woefully ill equipped for dealing with disagreements. In a world where individual choice is supreme, how do we learn to accept that there are alternative perspectives to our own that may also be valid? If my goals are the only ones that matter, those who do not share them can too easily be viewed as obstacles that need to be swept away. In the educational context, the invisible hand can turn into an iron fist.

The widespread adoption of a free-market approach to the college curriculum has had other noxious effects, as well: It has fueled a rampant vocationalism among students, leading them to desert humanities classes in favor of pre-professional tracks aimed at lucrative careers. When universities do not signal the intrinsic value of certain topics or texts by requiring them, many students simply follow market cues.

Civic education, by contrast, is a public good. Left to the market, it will always be undersupplied. It is rarely a priority for employers or for job seekers to promote the skills of active listening, mutual reasoning, respecting differences and open-mindedness. We need to reinvest in it.

In the absence of civic education, it is not surprising that universities are at the epicenter of debates over free speech and its proper exercise. Free speech is hard work. The basic assumptions and attitudes necessary for cultivating free speech do not come to us naturally. Listening to people with whom you disagree can be unpleasant. But universities have a moral and civic duty to teach students how to consider and weigh contrary viewpoints, and how to accept differences of opinion as a healthy feature of a diverse society. Disagreement is in the nature of democracies.

Universities and colleges must do a better job of explaining to our students the rationale for free speech, as well as cultivating in them the skills and mind-set necessary for its practice. The free-market curriculum model is simply not equipped for this task. We cannot leave this imperative up to student choice.

At Stanford, since 2021, we once again have a single, common undergraduate requirement. By structuring its curriculum around important topics rather than canonical texts, and by focusing on the cultivation of democratic skills such as listening, reasonableness and humility, we have sought to steer clear of the cultural issues that doomed Western Civ. The new requirement was approved by our faculty senate in May 2020 without a single dissenting vote.

Called Civic, Liberal and Global Education, it includes a course on citizenship in the 21st century. Delivered in a small discussion-seminar format, this course provides students with the skills, training and perspectives for engaging in meaningful ways with others, especially when they disagree. All students read the same texts, some canonical and others contemporary. Just as important, all students work on developing the same skills. Preliminary assessments and feedback suggest that our new program is meeting its goals.

To be clear, our civic education does not aim at achieving consensus among students, nor at producing moderation. Our students, like all of us, will continue to disagree on many things. Nor are our students the only ones in need of such civic skills — numerous members of Congress and governors could no doubt use this curriculum, as well. (We’d be happy to share it.)

But it is our belief that by restoring a common curricular foundation centered on the democratic skills our students need to live in a diverse society, they will turn to more constructive ways to engage with those with whom they disagree than censorship or cancellation.

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Debra Satz is the dean of Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences. Dan Edelstein is the faculty director of the school’s Civic, Liberal and Global Education program.

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