Civic Values and Narrative Imagination: The Role of International Higher Education

When the seeds of modern democratic governance were first taking root in the world, a story was circulated about an individual who approached Benjamin Franklin in 1787 outside of Independence Hall at the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention. She asked Franklin whether he and his colleagues had created a monarchy or a republic. In reply he told her that the United States would be a “republic, if you can keep it.”

His response captured the key ingredient to making a democracy work: an educated and engaged citizenry, hence the need for the mechanism we call civic education. The need for this mechanism was born out of a concern to remind future generations who were distant from the struggle for independence of their duties of active citizenship. As the educational reformer John Dewey said, “Democracy needs to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife.”

The Democratic Challenge

A few months ago I was asked to join a forum in Southeast Asia to discuss what role higher education has to inculcate civic literacy and values in the students who pass through the university system. The topic is timely and relevant, as democracy and the role of citizenship is an ongoing discussion throughout the countries in the region where I live as well as within the ongoing political dialogue in the United States in the run up to the presidential election. Regarding the discussion at the forum, there was a sentiment that everyone knew civic education was important, but also that it was likely absent from the pedagogical ethos, i.e., a sense of both urgency and bewilderment was felt at how to engage the notion of civic education from the perspective of a university. How can this be done?

Given the broad scope and context of the topic, and for the purpose of this article, let us briefly clarify the connection between democracy and civic education. It seems that both terms can be captured well and connected if we a) understand civic education as a vehicle through which citizens gain the skills and tools to achieve b) a country where democracy is the “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” to quote Abraham Lincoln. When this is realized, one of the most powerful outcomes is an increase in society’s capacity for “bridging capital,” defined by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community as the ability to effectively work across differences with people who are unlike you (e.g., a different race or generation). This is an essential value for any modern and diverse democracy. From my own perspective, simply watching a few minutes of cable news on a recent trip to the United States underscored the need to nurture this capacity.

The Role of the University

Harkening back to the original question posed at the forum about the university and civic education, it is helpful to remember that the academy has long sought to bring a diverse range of people and ideas together in an intellectual and public commons. Such an environment lays fertile ground to both theorize and rehearse civic values within the classroom and the campus community (See, AACU’s A Crucible Moment). And one could argue that this is in fact the duty of the university in democratic countries: to cultivate graduates who are more than simply productive workers (which is comparatively easy). We must demand more, and this means nurturing within students a commitment to collectively engage to overcome problems as well as instilling a balance between their personal aspirations and the common good.

The above mentioned phrase “the common good,” it is typically used within a traditional frame of reference, that is, in relationship to citizenship within a democratic country. However in today’s world of hyper connectivity and the capsizing of oikeiosis—the Stoic doctrine that human affection radiates outward, diminishing as distance grows from oneself (see Jagdish Bhagwati’s In Defense of Globalization)—it must be acknowledged that the civic values we aspire to go beyond national boundaries and now encompass global citizenship as an acknowledgement of our interdependence and collective future.

Narrative Imagination

This idea of cultivating global citizenship as an integral aspect of civic education can be precipitated through the development of what philosopher Martha Nussbaum calls a “narrative imagination,” that is, the capacity to enter into and understand the worldviews, experiences, and lives of others. Moreover, narrative imagination is not only about knowledge acquisition from multiple perspectives; it is also about experience and compassion gained from being with others. It is a compelling counterweight to the ideology of explanatory nationalism and the belief that issues and affairs in countries other than my own are not my problem (See Thomas Pogge’s “World Poverty and Human Rights”). Through this kind of narrative-informed civic education, a foundation of values is laid for students to engage with the urgent global challenges of our time, such as poverty, war, terrorism, environmental sustainability, gender inequity, trafficking.

Michigan State’s conception of a learning model with student outcomes expressed through the intersecting categories of global, learning, and integration is one example of an institution with articulated aspirations to engage their students with these transnational values of citizenship both in the classroom and through experiential projects.

For its part, IIE throughout its history has supported universities in developing the narrative imagination of young people through international education and exchange efforts. The following diagram illustrates key outcomes and competencies participants have consistently gained from participation in various IIE international exchange programs over the years. Note that the outcomes expressed are knowledge-related as well as experiential and relational. These are key aspects of narrative imagination and the kind of civic education informed by these ideals is needed to generate graduates with the values required to contribute to the global common good.

As alluded to by both Benjamin Franklin and John Dewey in the opening paragraph, our future is tied to our ability to midwife an educated and engaged global citizenry. As such, robust civic education is essential and the 21st century university is a natural vehicle for carrying out such a task. And we must remember that this is a reinvigorated civic education within the context of the academy — one that transcends traditional boundaries and is imbibed with Nussbaum’s narrative-imagination ethos that is engendered through the types of encounters IIE has championed throughout its 96-year history and continues to do so today.

This article is published in full in the fall 2015 edition of IIENetworker magazine.