Today, the U.S. Department of Education joined with the Association of American Colleges and Universities in releasing a report that warns too few college graduates are prepared to participate in our democratic system. The report, titled “A Crucible Moment,” calls for the nation’s higher education system to reassert its civic and democratic mission. This includes both the fundamentals of American history and citizenship and knowledge of the world and its many cultures, thus incorporating concerns of both conservative and liberal critics of academia.

Here, to discuss the report, is a guest post from Carol Geary Schneider, president of the AAC&U.

Week after week, new articles and reports appear, each with the warning that the United States must dramatically increase the numbers of college graduates whose degrees or certificates hold “currency” in this challenging economy. And the economic trends are clear. To compete in the global economy, the United States will, indeed, need to significantly raise the levels of overall postsecondary achievement.

An essential point has been lost, however, in the incessant pressure to produce more degrees. American higher education institutions are distinguished worldwide not only because they produce leading research and economic know-how, but also because they have long maintained a strong commitment to preparing graduates for civic responsibility and democratic self-governance.

The tradition of American higher education—extending back to the days of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson—has always insisted on the importance of a strong arts and sciences grounding at the college level, so that the nation’s leaders would be well prepared for the complex questions—across science and society—that a democratic society inevitably faces. American colleges and universities—and yes, our community colleges too—were created first and foremost to ensure the future of our democracy.

To learn more about the role of community colleges, go back and read Higher Education for Democracy, the 1947 report of President Truman’s Commission on Higher Education, which accelerated their expansion. Like the Harvard Redbook of the same era, that report connected liberal education directly to the needs of a global democracy and to the expanded role community colleges should play in educating citizens of our democracy.

In our narrow response to addressing our international economic competitiveness, we are losing sight of this heritage. And worse, even as postsecondary education becomes a prerequisite for all who seek access to opportunity, many public leaders now are actively promoting witheringly reductive versions of college learning that seek to leave by the roadside—as an unaffordable luxury—some of the very disciplines—history, world cultures, anthropology, philosophy, literature and the other humanities—that, by any sober reading, build capacities of mind and heart that are basic to a principled democracy.

But with short-term certificates, for-profit trade schools and pared-down degree programs now widely touted as models of admirable efficiency, we are far down the path toward creating a two-tiered system in which some students still get a horizon-expanding and civic-minded liberal education, while too many others receive narrow training that is palpably indifferent either to any responsibility for democracy or to the needs of a vibrant economy.

However, civic-minded trailblazers are pushing back.

Today, January 10, the White House, the Department of Education, and “civic renewal” leaders from across the nation are coming together in a national forum titled “For Democracy’s Future: Education Reclaims Its Civic Mission.” The purpose of the forum, as Under Secretary of Education Martha Kanter makes clear, is to launch a galvanizing effort to reform and revitalize a civic mission for schooling in general and higher education in particular. Two weeks from now, some two thousand educators will gather at the AAC&U annual meeting in Washington to provide leadership for that effort. And, in the months to come, hundreds of other organizations and colleges and schools will provide their own leadership and support for this broader effort.

The catalyst for today’s White House convening is the release of a new report that was commissioned by the Department of Education, at Kanter’s behest, and written in dialogue with educational and civic leaders across the United States.

Titled “A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future,” the report critiques the trend toward viewing college as “work force preparation” primarily and outlines a robust 21st-century vision for democratic learning in a global century. A Crucible Moment points to parallel efforts associated with the movement called the Civic Mission of the Schools, and calls on K–12 and higher education to work together to “foster progressively higher levels of civic knowledge, skills, examined values, and action as expectations for every student.”

The arts and sciences “core curriculum,” both in school and college, is part of this vision for 21st-century democratic learning, and A Crucible Moment calls for new attention in the core curriculum to the ideas, values, institutions, and contestations that continue to frame democracy at home and around the world.

Yet general education is only a part of the equation, the report points out. College majors—including those that prepare students directly for jobs—need to play their own part in teaching students how their chosen fields intersect with a democratic society.

Viewing economic creativity and democratic vitality as intersecting rather than competing spheres, A Crucible Moment calls for “public questions” and “civic inquiry” to become part of every major field. There are public questions and civic choices inherent in every field of endeavor, the report points out.

Those preparing for careers in science, health, engineering, education, public service, business, accounting and the trades all need practical experience in examining the kind of public questions with which every field inevitably wrestles. Today’s students need—both for democracy and the economy—not just to analyze issues, but to work together with others from different backgrounds in finding achievable solutions to actively contested questions. Work in the field—in partnership with community organizations tackling important public questions—is the new frontier both for college majors and for democracy’s future.

I have been honored to help plan and to speak at this White House convening, and to serve as a member of the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement that framed A Crucible Moment. The Department of Education’s commitment to this issue, and the willingness of the White House to turn a spotlight on the role education plays in shaping democracy’s future, give me hope that we can reverse the dangerous narrowing of our nation’s vision for college learning and reinvigorate education’s civic mission.

Our strongest hope for democracy’s future, however, lies in the work that public-spirited educators have already begun—across the country and in all parts of education, K–12 and postsecondary alike—to “lay the foundations” for “democracy-minded” practice in postsecondary education. A Crucible Moment turns a spotlight on institutions, curriculum designs, pedagogies, and community partnerships that already are showing us what civic learning in a globally engaged and extraordinarily diverse democracy needs to become.

From Miami Dade College in Florida, where civic responsibility is a degree requirement for over 150,000 largely first-generation community college students, to Tulane University, where all students must complete at least two college-level courses involving public service, to Portland State University, where all college seniors work in collaborative teams on required capstone projects that “serve the city,” robust models for civic learning across the curriculum already are springing up. And educational leaders and organizations across the country now are organizing to make these models “pervasive” rather than “peripheral.”

A Crucible Moment also points to the role that reciprocal campus-community partnerships already are playing in many communities. It calls for a dramatic expansion of such partnerships, and for students’ civic learning in college to be directly connected to these “real-world” efforts to solve civic problems in our communities.

A set of national roundtables organized to develop the content of A Crucible Moment and the planning behind the January 10 White House forum have brought these civic-minded leaders together to set goals, plan strategy, and launch a long-term coordinated effort to make the level of civic learning and democratic engagement both pervasive and a point of national pride.

Colleges and universities cannot solve the nation’s civic recession alone, any more than they can reverse our economic recession alone. But a flourishing economy requires many of the same capacities that support vibrant citizen involvement. We do not have to jettison our commitment to civic learning in order to prepare students for success in the knowledge economy. A twenty-first-century education can and should build those capacities of mind and heart that foster innovation and productive problem solving wherever they are needed—in the workplace, in our communities, and in the crosswalks that embed the economy in our democracy.

The heart of a vibrant democracy and economy is educated, engaged citizens who are able to make wise and responsible choices for their families, their communities, and the larger society (globally as well as locally envisioned). All of America’s colleges and universities—public and private, two-year and four-year—must help to prepare these engaged citizens and, thereby, help as well to reinvigorate our dispirited democracy.

I encourage readers to peruse A Crucible Moment and to become part of the broad-based effort to reconnect education with democracy’s future.