“It ought to be axiomatic in this country that every man must devote a reasonable share of his time to doing his duty in the political life of the community…The people who say that they have not time to attend to politics are simply saying that they are unfit to live in a free community.”—Teddy Roosevelt,
“The Duties of American Citizenship”
January 1883, Buffalo, New York
“The Man in the Arena”—that is how President Teddy Roosevelt saw himself, and it is this vision of public service that inspired his amazing “Strenuous Life.” It all seems inevitable now, but in 1883 it probably looked far less so to a twenty-five-year-old, one-term legislator waging an uphill fight for reform in the corrupt corridors of Albany politics. True, Roosevelt had graduated from elite Harvard College in 1881, had published a definitive study of the naval history of the War of 1812, and had been elected to the New York state assembly—all before the age of twenty-three. But when he took the stage in Buffalo to deliver a speech on “The Duties of American Citizenship,” it was certainly as a political neophyte.
However, as one begins to listen to the young Roosevelt, one is struck by how convinced he was of the need for principled public service, especially among his own peers. First, he chastised his generation for their passive approach to the political process: “A great many of our young men who are bent on enjoying life…rather plume themselves upon being good citizens if they even vote; yet voting is the very least of their duties.” Instead, Roosevelt argued that if freedom and self-government are worth having, then his generation must labor to retain them through “combination with our fellows who have the same interests and the same principles.” Finally, he hoped that more of his colleagues would go into public service, claiming that the “first duty of an American citizen, then, is that he shall work in politics; his second duty is that he shall do that work in a practical manner; and his third is that it shall be done in accord with the highest principles of honor and justice.”
Teddy Roosevelt's clarion call for active citizen engagement speaks to all generations of Americans, especially those graduating from college today. Virtually all colleges highlight in their mission statements the worthy goal of preparing their students for the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. But beyond the rhetoric, what is the reality—does the college experience deliver on its citizenship promises?
With that promise in mind, ISI embarked this year upon another civic literacy study, to determine whether it was true that earning a college degree made graduates more likely to participate in a meaningful way beyond voting in the political process. Enlightened Citizenship: How Civic Knowledge Trumps a College Degree in Promoting Active Civic Engagement is the culmination of this new research agenda, the fifth such annual report issued by ISI's National Civic Literacy Board. As such, it builds upon major findings from ISI's previous reports which demonstrated not only that a college degree adds very little essential civic knowledge to a graduate's storehouse of learning, but that the college experience also exhibits an indoctrinating effect on its students. The “Big Question” that ISI seeks to answer in this current report is the following—Does college encourage more informed and more actively engaged citizens?
To answer this question, ISI developed ten political criteria and then asked a random sample of 2,508 Americans whether they had engaged in these activities at least once in their lifetime. An important distinction was made between passive engagement—registering and casting a vote—and active engagement, seven particular activities that are recognized as concrete examples of effective electoral participation (respondents were also asked if they had won elective office). ISI wanted to determine the character of a citizen's civic engagement, distinguishing between those who merely vote from those who devote significant time, talent, and treasure to the political process. It is exactly this kind of “active” citizenship that Teddy Roosevelt prized, and what colleges purport to promote in their lofty mission statements.
ISI then employed multivariate regression analysis to determine the statistically significant impact of a college degree on a person's pattern of civic engagement, as well as the impact of a whole host of other individual characteristics, including a person's knowledge of America's history and institutions. As the title of our new report suggests, civic knowledge does in fact trump a college degree in promoting active civic engagement. The rest of this report is devoted to highlighting these important differences between a college education and civic knowledge, as well as how civic self-education compares in its participatory impact. In 2010, the American body politic witnessed a groundswell of grass-roots political activity in the form of the Tea Party movement, that took as its cue a keen interest in and firm adherence to the constitutional principles of the Founding Era. This fusion of American historical memory with practical political activity suggests that the connection between civic knowledge and civic participation could be very strong indeed.
Of course, there are dimensions of life other than electoral politics, and ultimately, each citizen must decide how best to balance politics with the other requirements of family, work, associations, belief, and other priorities. In a free society, there will always be an infinite combining of such values according to the particular priorities of individuals and communities. Still, a republic, more so than other regimes, cannot afford to neglect the political arena and expect that the heavy-lifting of self-government can be safely off-loaded to an interested few. This was a key insight of Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America, who observed that in egalitarian societies there was an acute danger for individuals to retreat into their own lives and neglect the public sphere. However, Tocqueville was impressed by the vast array of opportunities for ordinary citizens in America to participate in the public life of their communities. As a result, “as soon as a man begins to treat of public affairs in public, he begins to perceive that he is not so independent of his fellow-men as he had at first imagined, and that, in order to obtain their support, he must often lend them his co-operation.” It is this deeper purpose of civic engagement, beyond the cacophony of particular campaign battles, that Tocqueville was talking about, and why ISI is interested in tracking whether it is simply more schooling, or something more substantive, that leads to such enlightened citizenship. The answers in this report may surprise you.
|T. Kenneth Cribb Jr.
Intercollegiate Studies Institute
|Lt. General Josiah Bunting III
National Civic Literacy Board