Chapter 1: Educating for a Civil Society

by Robert Johnson, Ph.D.

Posted on September 06, 2022

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We live in a time of high inflation, a shrinking middle class, and the widest wealth gap since the great depression. The James Webb telescope has been created to find the first galaxies that formed in the early universe. We have more technology, information, digital media, and data than ever. The pandemic has caused food insecurity rates to rise to more than 323 million people worldwide, according to the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition (USGLC). The world is more connected via technology, and yet people seem to feel more isolated and depressed than ever. What is the role of colleges and universities in educating the next generation of leaders to ensure we have a civil society? Educating for a civil society must include mastering civil discourse and maintaining mutual respect, which will ultimately create a mindset for citizenry. 

What is a Civil Society? 

Blessinger, Sengupta, and Mahoney state a civil society can be defined as the third sector of society. Whereas the first and second sectors of society include government (that is, the public sector) and business (that is, the private sector), civil society (that is, the civic or community sector) includes all other individual groups and institutions (UniversityWorldNewsBlog). These organizations inherently operate with intentionality to solve global challenges outside of the public and private sectors to perpetuate equity and justice for all. Higher education is a part of this civil sector. A civil society addresses issues ranging from food insecurity to closing the digital divide. A civil society builds social and cultural capital and thus serves as the glue that not only helps to hold society together but also helps to develop society in ways that government and business cannot. 

A civil society also complements the other sectors and, some would argue, serves as a check-and-balance, which is important for the proper functioning of a democratic society. 

Higher education is one of the last beacons that provides a platform to exchange dissenting views via civil discourse and mutual respect that can positively serve all humanity.  

Higher education is one of the last beacons that provides a platform to exchange dissenting views via civil discourse and mutual respect that can positively serve all humanity. Combined, they provide a mindset for citizenry. One of the primary purposes of higher education should be to educate the next generation of global leaders to transform the world and build a sustainable planet to add to the quality of life for all humankind. Building this social and cultural capital results in a civil society. 

What is the Role of Higher Education in a Civil Society? 

Colleges and universities are uniquely positioned to educate for a civil society. One of the primary roles of higher education is to produce and consume knowledge, therefore becoming engines or catalysts for political development, economic growth, and social transformation. According to a new study from Harvard and the Asian Development Bank, 6.7 percent of the world's population are college degree-holders. 

Whether we like it or not, as educated citizens, we are privileged and have a unique role and social responsibility to leave the world better than we found it. We must be a voice for the voiceless and a beacon of hope for the possibilities of the future. 

By definition, higher education institutions are catalysts for political, economic, social, technological, and environmental change because their mission is to consume and produce knowledge and skills. In doing so, they serve as the engines for political development, economic growth, and social transformation, among other things. 

In producing and disseminating knowledge, institutions of higher learning should actively teach and encourage civil discourse and mutual respect.  

There is a common misperception that teaching students social responsibility in the age of globalization need only involve community service activities or citizenship initiatives. While these initiatives are important, they are often limited to one-off programs or extracurricular activities. In producing and disseminating knowledge, institutions of higher learning should actively teach and encourage civil discourse and mutual respect. 

Civil Discourse 

If ever there was a time for civil discourse, it is today. The idea that we may teach our students to air different opinions without rancor is needed now more than ever. Social media has created an echo chamber where people follow individuals or organizations with similar beliefs. In these spaces, there are no real exchanges of ideas with differing views or diversity of thought. People read their news feeds from channels that confirm and perpetuate their thinking. We should go back to the days when dialogue and debate from opposing views were welcome. Tip O’Neil, the Speaker of the House in the United States Congress, was a bastion for liberal views and progressive thinking. Former President of the United States Ronald Reagan was a standard bearer for the conservative movement. Yet these two men on opposite ends of the political spectrum passed legislation through civil discourse. 

Our universities must inherently teach civil discourse in and out of the classroom. Opposing views should be encouraged, not discouraged. We should promote debate on tough issues and give students safe spaces to lean into discomfort. Students should be able to dialogue with Benjamin Netanyahu and Louis Farrakhan on the same stage without the building burning down. Voices from opposing perspectives should be welcome at all times. Faculty and students should be encouraged to find and express their voices without repercussions. Our institutions must create and perpetuate civil discourse in a social media environment. And, it must be done with intentionality. How do we get roommates to stop texting each other while sitting in the same room? Civil discourse ultimately works if there is mutual respect between opposing voices. Hearing another person’s view does not necessarily result in agreement—we have to teach our students to agree to disagree. 

Mutual Respect 

Civil discourse only works if there is mutual respect by both parties. Mutual respect is about everyone being valued for who they are and what they bring to the table. It involves seeing people's unique contributions, recognizing and understanding differences, and celebrating diversity—but also capitalizing on common ground. Mutual respect inherently enables civil discourse in and out of the classroom because it entails believing that everyone is competent and reliable and will act within their own scope of practice. It means avoiding treating others in rude and disrespectful ways. 

Mutual respect is also the foundation of a healthy learning environment. Our universities are designed to create and disseminate knowledge. Therefore, if we want to truly have open discourse to promote a civil society, it must begin from a paradigm of mutual respect. 

Universities must intentionally educate this generation of young people to not silence and humiliate others. Our campus environments should always discourage insensitive remarks, belittling jokes, or targeting people for their beliefs. However, embracing civil discourse and mutual respect will support a mindset for citizenship. 

A Mindset for Citizenship 

John Adams had it right 233 years ago when he drafted the Massachusetts Constitution, calling on citizens to “cherish the interests of literature and the sciences.” Those of us who want to embrace a civil society and are responsible for preparing a new generation for the future of work and citizenship would be wise to read and heed his words today. 

If we simply educate young people only in skill sets without providing them with a purposeful mindset, we are setting them and our civil society up for failure. The engineering students who know how to build a bridge across a river but are incapable of building bridges among the diverse cultures in their workplace and communities will be shortchanging themselves and their democracy. We will all be guilty of committing educational malpractice. 

If we simply educate young people only in skill sets without providing them with a purposeful mindset, we are setting them and our civil society up for failure.  

Adams and his colleagues, looking to build a democracy for the long term, made clear that “Wisdom, and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people,” was and always will be “necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties.” 

They knew that the “promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures” was critical to building a future of economic prosperity in their new nation. But they also believed that the future of the democracy depended on a citizenry equipped with “humanity, and general benevolence, public and private charity,” as well as values such as honesty and even “good humor.” 

Many of today’s climate-change deniers were educated in our universities, yet they have chosen to set aside reason and facts in favor of short-term political and financial gain. They somehow lost the humanity that tells us to take action because we are part of something bigger than ourselves. 

Today, our nation is struggling to re-engineer its economy in the face of rapid automation, digitization, and globalization. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development predicts that 14 percent of today’s jobs will be eliminated by machines, and another 32 percent will be disrupted. Students graduating from college in this era will face a future of work that will include upwards of 17 different jobs in five different industries, including some that do not even exist today. 

Growing up in Detroit in the 1960s and 70s, I saw the emergence of the great middle class built from the ground up by people working by the sweat of their brows at Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler. As noted in a 2016 report by Klaus Schwab for the World Economic Forum, by 1990, the Big Three U.S. automakers had 1.2 million workers, $250 billion of revenue, and a total value of $26 billion. We now have a much bigger three—Facebook, Apple, and Google—that, as of 2020, generated $529 billion of revenue and $6.8 TRILLION of value with just 339,000 workers. 

This has created a very real and understandable fear of economic dislocation, coupled with accelerating income inequality, that has widened our historic national divisions along racial, partisan, religious, and generational fault lines. 

We have lost the ability to compromise and any desire to learn from people who disagree with us.  

Today’s student has stepped into a fear-laden civic quagmire where ideology has overpowered science. Bias has replaced reason. The line between entertainment and journalism has all but disappeared. We are left with an inability to make common sense decisions on issues ranging from COVID-19 to gun rights, income inequality to infrastructure, and global warming to war. We have lost the ability to compromise and any desire to learn from people who disagree with us. We are incapable of disagreeing with each other while still maintaining mutual regard. 

At the same time, students will enter a workplace that is increasingly diverse in terms of race, age, gender, sexual preference and identification, and religion. By 2024, four of 10 people over the age of 65 will still be in the workforce, carrying with them the values they developed decades earlier, before 9/11, the smartphone, the #MeToo movement, the legalization of gay marriage, and other societal disruptions. 

By 2024, less than 60 percent of the labor force will be classified as white/non-Hispanic, down from 75 percent in 1994. One out of five workers will be Hispanic. 

For our economy and democracy to prosper, we need to revisit the educational principles espoused by John Adams and intentionally develop more than just a skill set in our students. That means nurturing their sense of humanity, curiosity, creativity, resilience, and ability to collaborate with people who have entirely different life experiences. To educate for a civil society, we should embrace civil discourse and mutual respect with a mindset for citizenship.