Teaching the ‘Habits of Democracy’

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Perhaps, on the first Tuesday of October, Chris Christie will confront Elizabeth Warren in this rural Old Dominion town, or maybe Tim Kaine will take on Ivanka Trump . Whomever Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton choose as their running mates, they’ll wind up on a stage in…

Farmville, Va.

Perhaps, on the first Tuesday of October, Chris Christie will confront Elizabeth Warren in this rural Old Dominion town, or maybe Tim Kaine will take on Ivanka Trump. Whomever Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton choose as their running mates, they’ll wind up on a stage in Farmville, the seat of Longwood University, which is hosting this year’s sole vice-presidential debate.

“One of the great achievements in American civic life is the fact that the public, the body politic, now has this expectation that the major candidates are going to come together and, in a civil way, talk about the issues,” says W. Taylor Reveley IV, the school’s president since 2013. “That feels very normal to us at this point, but it’s not normal around the world and it wasn’t even normal in the U.S. until ’76 in part and in full until ’88”—when the Commission on Presidential Debates formalized an ad hoc process that had been run by the League of Women Voters.

“Civil” and “normal” are not the first words that spring to mind to describe this election. Offering to host one of the coming debates—hundreds of schools compete for the honor every four years—probably seemed like a better idea before anyone knew who the candidates would be. Back then the event conjured up a pageant of democracy, not 24-hour security, protest zones and potential threats of violence.

Mr. Reveley allows that the Longwood debate may be “operatic”—imagine a Christie-Warren matchup—and adds that “2016 has had enough colorful aspects to it that you never know what might transpire.” But he also describes, with genuine spirit, “that burst of civic energy and that excitement on the part of all the students who will participate in a once-in-a-lifetime historic occasion.”

If that sounds like the sentiment of a less cynical era, then little-known Longwood—founded in 1839 near where the last major engagements of the Civil War would be fought before Lee surrendered at Appomattox—seems out of time. So does Mr. Reveley. He is only 41 years old but has a thoughtful and almost 19th-century quality to him, which somehow befits the first third-generation college president in U.S. history. His father, Reveley III, is president of William & Mary, and his grandfather, Reveley II, was president of Hampden-Sydney College a couple miles away from Farmville. On his campus this week Mr. Reveley—the IV—talked about the election, how modern academia is failing students and the country, and how the recovery of civic education could improve the distemper of American politics.

The inspiration to host a debate came in 2014 when Mr. Reveley was teaching an undergraduate seminar on the American presidency. A student mentioned offhand how holding the event would strengthen what Mr. Reveley calls “the genuine and deep historical mission of this place, which is the preparation of citizen leaders. We really do, like the boat against the current, believe that the role of college is not purely jobs. It’s democracy. It’s to produce citizens.”

To that end, Longwood is incorporating the national scene into the curriculum, with 31 pilot classes offered this fall that touch on the election in some way. The course catalog will range from the straightforward (“Presidential Elections,” political science) to the creative (“Thinking Strategically: Applied Game Theory,” economics) to the unusual (“On the Campaign Trail,” a photography class in the art department). An English professor will teach the Constitution “as a piece of wordcraft,” Mr. Reveley says. There’s even the wry: “Deception and Lying,” or Communications 361.

Over time, these experiments will form a core Longwood curriculum. All across the pastoral campus, lamppost flags announce the arrival of “Debate 2016.” You might call the school Clinton-Trump University, albeit without the deceptive marketing.

This engagement with current affairs is in keeping with the traditional liberal arts, “which is a phrase that’s gotten very complicated,” Mr. Reveley says. “Liberalism is a word that has completely changed its meaning, or lost its original sense. Radical, the same thing has happened. Manufacture: another word that used to mean a thing built by hand.”

He explains: “Liberalism used to mean things pertaining to citizenship. In Latin, it’s the same root as the word for liberty. If you were converting what people meant by liberal arts in the early 20th century to 21-century vernacular, it’s something like citizenship studies.”

Over “the last generation and a half,” Mr. Reveley estimates, the liberal arts have come to mean “reading a lot of Sartre.” More seriously, the humanities and social sciences have turned toward “personal understanding and development of your own personal sensibilities: They help you know yourself.” Mr. Reveley disagrees. “The purpose ought to be broader,” he says. The real question ought to be: “How do you bring to bear the great bodies of knowledge to the act of living a life in a free society?”

The Founders, Mr. Reveley says, appropriately for Independence Day, “really thought about the role of college in American life.” Jefferson founded the University of Virginia; Washington was the first American chancellor of William & Mary. Mr. Reveley calls Madison “the first graduate student,” who stayed at Princeton after graduation to study Hebrew and theology, “and then went home to live with his parents.”

The success of the American project, as Mr. Reveley reads the Founders, depended on knowledgeable citizens. “It was of paramount importance,” he says, “that there were enough people educated broadly enough and specifically educated to be participants in a free society—which is what the curriculum was deliberately geared toward, that there would be the wherewithal within the body politic to ask the right questions, to have the wisdom to elect the leaders with the temperament and character to preserve liberty.”

Speaking of which, the electorate seems to be searching at the moment, rather desperately, for such higher-minded choices. According to this week’s Wall Street Journal-NBC poll, 45% of Democrats would have preferred someone other than Mrs. Clinton as their nominee, and 52% of Republicans preferred someone other than Mr. Trump. In a sardonic Public Policy Polling survey, also released this week, voters were given a choice of Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Trump or a giant meteor hitting the Earth. One in eight went with the meteor.

As Mr. Reveley sees it, politics isn’t dysfunctional because of polarization, per se, so much as political detachment. “Fewer people, a smaller portion of the American public, is paying closer attention to American politics,” he says. “It’s certainly correlation and I think there’s some causation, that American higher education has stopped, in the main, thinking of citizenship and democracy as its basic purpose and begun to think in a much narrower sense of ‘college is good for career.’ ” If kids lack faith in, or appreciation for, the principles of self-government, then politics will naturally atrophy.

Wait a sec: Is what can sound like ivory-tower grandiosity—though Longwood is not a rich and only a modestly selective school—disconnected from the economic reality and students’ demand for useful skills in the marketplace? Mr. Reveley concedes that higher education plays “an instrumental role in economic progress,” and he could see an alternative credentialing model emerge that awards “merit badges for skills” like coding Java or speaking German.

“Is college necessary for economic growth? I think so, but I could conceive of other ways that could be achieved,” he explains. “Is it necessary for democracy? Like the Founders, I would say that it absolutely is. What I cannot conceive of is how we could have robust democracy and free society without the advantages of college.”

But this year of campus protests and safe spaces hasn’t been an illustrious one for colleges either. More intellectual energy seems to be devoted to seeking offense where none exists and shutting down debate, rather than litigating new and challenging ideas.

“That’s something I think about a lot,” Mr. Reveley says, “and the generational line is maybe helpful for us. My granddad started at Hampden-Sydney in the summer of ’63 and wrapped up in ’77—so he essentially ran from Kennedy’s assassination through the bicentennial, which was about as tumultuous an era in American social life as there ever was.”

Over this stretch, he says, the idea that colleges would act in loco parentis “almost completely broke down as an ethos.” But maybe the breakdown is not permanent. “Today, there is almost a pining for something like it to return,” he says. “For a long time the student mind-set, the parent mind-set was to be hands off, allow for a maximum of personal freedom and personal discretion, independent of the effects that might have. Now on the part of students and parents there is a strong appetite for what was lost. To have a stronger sense of oversight and care and protection.”

Mr. Reveley traces the social friction to a loss of purpose. Civic education can help build a society where people with deep disagreements can nonetheless imagine how others think and make sense of the world. It is an education, in other words, “in the habits of democracy,” as Mr. Reveley puts it. “It means a lot to be able to sit around with people from different parts of the country and different walks of life with different perspectives and talk through things. That matters.”

The fundamental problem with American higher education, he adds, is that “there’s no North Star.” In an age when the highest aspiration of every school is to be interchangeable with all the others, being self-consciously different is—to use one of his words in the old-fashioned sense—a radical act of imagination.

So is Mr. Reveley optimistic about the future of self-government? “I am,” he replies. “I think if there is a particular thing we’ve lost sight of in American life it is a vision of the future.”

This vision, he says, as developed by “what we used to call, once upon a time, the liberal tradition,” looked “remarkably like what a great college campus looks like—rich with traditions, civic traditions; actually beautiful, a delight to be in that space; infused with real understanding of the past and the strength that we can draw from it but also intensely focused on how we can make progress.”

Mr. Reveley continues: “I honestly deeply do think that if American life could resemble more what life is like at our best colleges and universities we’d have a lot to be optimistic about. Even in the midst of a”—he pauses a beat—“colorful election cycle, I am optimistic. Having this debate here is a measure of that optimism. It’s a point of real pride, a point of real joy.”

We’ll have to loop back after October’s debate to see if he still feels the same way.

Mr. Rago is a member of the Journal’s editorial board.

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