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Reclaiming leadership of civil education

21 May 2019 | David Williams A new publication from the Association of Governing Boards (AGB) argues that in order to protect democracy, higher education needs to reclaim its role in relation to civil education.

A new publication from the Association of Governing Boards (AGB) argues that in order to protect democracy, higher education needs to reclaim its role in relation to civil education. This will require action by governing bodies working with campus leaders. Many of the concerns raised by the AGB are likely to find an echo in the UK.

The Association of Governing Boards of colleges and universities (AGB) in the United States (US) has issued an advisory statement entitled Reclaiming Higher Education’s Leadership in Support of Civil Education.

AGB defines civil education as a “broad concern for educating students as full participants in democracy” (p.1).

The advisory statement details the challenges facing democracy in the US, highlighting the central role colleges and universities have historically played in the education of citizenship: “the nation’s colleges and universities have served as vital institutions for advancing fundamental values and forming an educated and engaged citizenry.” AGB suggests that currently there is an ‘inordinate emphasis on narrow workforce development goals”, and “this threatens to crowd out broader aims related to civic engagement and democratic renewal.” It believes this has led to an inability of sustaining reasoned debate or achieving consensus on national policies and priorities” (p.1).

Further, in the US, “society is less able to argue civilly, to practice the arts of democracy, and evoke the democratic virtues that distinguish our nation”. To correct the situation, “higher education must reclaim its leadership role in support of civil education” (p.1).

Areas of particular concern

Democracy in America is judged to be fragile and under threat. This is reflected in five areas of particular concern:

  • Democratic efficiency and literacy – many citizens do not understand how government works and are disinclined to engage in the practice of democracy.
  • Pluralism – there is a need to find ways to respect the diversity of voices and modes of discourse in American society.
  • Equality – persistent income inequality, decreasing social mobility and rising costs and student debt levels, have meant that higher education is increasingly seen as a private good reinforcing social divisions and being beyond the reach of some. It is no-longer seen as a public good that acts as an engine of social mobility. The result is a decline in public trust.
  • Truth and evidence – there is alarming and heightened skepticism towards colleges and universities, which historically has been seen as guardians and progenitors of knowledge and expertise, a skepticism that extends even to facticity, evidence, and truth per se.
  • Civil discourse – public discourse has devolved to a state where the vitriolic espousing of opinions often substitutes for trying to understand different points of view.

AGB believes that it is dangerous to take for “granted that democracy will continue to operate and thrive without intentional effort from each subsequent generation. As leaders of the sector of society that is fundamentally charged with educating citizens, every college and university holds a measure of responsibility for the health of our democracy” (p.4). Higher education has a key role in the “formation of an educated citizenry” (p.5).

Governing bodies

“As higher education governance is entrusted to independent boards of citizen trustees”, AGB believes governing boards are “especially well positioned to ensure that civil education is an enduring priority for the nation’s colleges and universities.” This can be done “without taking one political position or another.” It should involve governing bodies working with campus leadership (p.5).

Suggested actions

The AGB’s statement is advisory, rather than prescriptive, acknowledging that the specific context relating to an institution will affect what actions it might take in support of civil education. Some of the potential actions fall within the remit of governing bodies, others are matters of academic governance and lie outside the direct responsibilities of the governing body.

The suggested actions include:

  • Focus campus conversations and make civil education an institutional priority – governing bodies and head of institution can signal the importance of civil education
  • Audit current practice – encourage a “civil audit” of their institution
  • Support civil education activity on campus – governing bodies should become knowledgeable about activities and campus programmes
  • Help institutional stakeholders understand civil education


Many of the concerns raised by the AGB are likely to find an echo in the UK. In particular, as AGB notes there is real risk that a narrow instrumental view of higher education, focusing on private benefit, crowds out those aspects of higher education which are a public good and are central to maintaining the nation’s democracy.

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