Renewing America’s Civic Compact 
Edited by Carol McNamara and Trevor Shelley.
Lexington Books, 2023.
Hardcover, 258 pages, $100.

Reviewed by Thomas Kelly.

For many 2024 carries with it a very real sense of civic despair. There is of course the “dread that many feel about the coming presidential election. Polls show a broader pessimism with 78% of Americans saying we’re headed in the wrong direction. As David Brooks put it, “Today’s communal culture is based on a shared belief that society is broken, systems are rotten, the game is rigged, injustice prevails…” Amidst this deep sense of despair, where can we find hope for our civic and political culture?

In Renewing America’s Civic Compact, Carol McNamara (now with Great Hearts Institute, formerly at Arizona State University) and Trevor Shelley of Arizona State University have edited an excellent series of essays that aim to be clear-eyed about the key challenges facing American constitutional democracy and prospects for reform. “There is a growing consensus across the political and intellectual spectrum that liberal democracy is on life support or has already failed,” note Shelley and McNamara in their introduction. They reject this consensus. They caution that such a belief can become “a self-fulfilling prophecy” and remind us that such viewpoints “forget the purpose of America’s experiment in self-government is to afford citizens and statesmen the opportunity to direct their common fate through prudential constitutional means.”  

The collected essays in this volume all argue against civic despair, identifying different challenges and proposing strategies for reform. A variety of important topics are explored—including the national security case for civics and the role of space travel in forging national unity—but it is the threat higher education poses to our civic compact that stands out most clearly. The problem of higher education has rarely been more evident than in the last few months as prominent university leaders have shown themselves hypocritical on matters of free speech and relatively indifferent to the presence of antisemitism on campus. The essays in this volume help us understand better the roots of recent events while recognizing the importance of our colleges and universities when it comes to civic renewal. Higher education is both the problem and the solution to much of what ails our civic compact.

Each essay in Civic Compact highlights a different facet of the problem. Ian Rowe argues that too often education promotes the idea of black victimhood which undermines the agency of black students. Michael Zuckert defends liberalism against critics in the academy such as Patrick Deneen who argue that American liberal democracy has failed: “We have missed the ways the liberal tradition contains within itself the resources to respond to the alleged failings of the liberal order,” he writes. Michael Lind and Rita Koganzon both criticize the credentialing function of colleges and universities which leads to inequality and polarization. 

Underlying all of these arguments, whether explicitly or implicitly stated, is a call for reform in the way colleges and universities educate and the role they play in society. But it is higher education’s seeming indifference to the pursuit of truth that stands out as the greatest challenge for university leadership and the public at large to confront. 

In his opening essay, “We all Live on Campus Now,” Andrew Sullivan describes a tension that marks both campus life and society at large—the dichotomy between truth and power. He notes that one side in this debate views objective truth as difficult to discern but knowable. The other side holds that “all truth is an instrument of someone’s power.” It is this latter sentiment, according to Sullivan, that is ascendant on campus and in society at large. It means that the priority for universities becomes “equalizing power” between groups rather than pursuing truth wherever it leads. 

Jonathan Rauch makes a similar point in his essay “The Constitution of Knowledge.” Rauch describes the essential role that objective knowledge plays in American constitutional democracy, arguing that a “globe-spanning community of testers” is necessary for evaluating propositions that the public can hold as valid. This has traditionally been the role of the academy, but for Rauch, the academy has become “the laggard in defending the Constitution of Knowledge.” Rauch notes that given recent news stories about universities putting politics ahead of truth it is “no wonder that much of the public has formed the impression that academia is not trustworthy.”

Indeed something of a consensus is forming on this last point. Several left-of-center thinkers such as Josh Barro, Caitlin Flanagan, and Tyler Austin Harper have described higher education as untrustworthy in recent weeks, joining the ranks of conservatives who have made similar claims for years. Certainly, the data on declining trust in higher education suggests a problem much deeper than any partisan point of view.

This breakdown in trust has less to do with the politics of higher education and more to do with the way university members shut down opposing views. Pamela Paresky, in her contribution to the volume, describes the bullying climate that exists on far too many campuses. According to Paresky, campus life follows the same dynamic as the childhood practice of “cooties.” Patient zero is any student, professor, or administrator who fails to adhere to campus orthodoxy. Things have gotten quite bad in Paresky’s estimation: “Ideological purity demands have produced an academic monoculture in which the range of topics about which people are willing to debate and about which scholars are willing to research has narrowed; the severity of consequences for expressing unpopular views has risen, and truth claims are to be uncritically accepted as long as they conform to the preferred ideological narrative.”

By cultivating environments that are hostile to truth, colleges and universities have unintentionally undermined trust in experts. Yet expertise is essential for the production of shared facts that can be widely held as valid and serve as the basis of public argument. J. Benjamin Hurlbut argues in his essay that institutions that cultivate expertise have harmed our civic compact by failing to acknowledge that “forms of knowledge (the facts, the information) that matter to public life are always already political, informed by prior judgments about what is important for citizens’ lives…” He urges such institutions to reclaim their necessary role in democracy by subjecting themselves to “democratic attention, scrutiny and critique” so that the production of public information is opened up to greater democratic influence. 

In reading the essays in Renewing America’s Civic Compact one gets a much better idea of how higher education is harming our civic and political culture. Yet nowhere do the authors condemn higher education tout court and advocate a “burn it down” mentality. Instead recommendations for reform run along three main lines.

The first is a call for greater viewpoint diversity, including “open and free inquiry and understanding” in the words of Andrew Sullivan. Rauch writes that “it should be routine for universities to welcome conservative scholars and champion conservative scholarship; to engage civilly and even appreciatively with controversial speakers; to shrug off provocations and reject censorship in all its forms…to regard diversity of perspective as a reason to have conversations not to shut them down.” Whether this spirit of disagreement and debate can be revitalized on campus is an open question. Sullivan is not entirely sanguine about its prospects, but likely would not disagree with the ray of light that H.R. McMaster sees in programs like the School for Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University which “help students understand the great promise of our democracy.”

A second recommendation for reform is to take seriously the notion of objective truth. C. Bradley Thompson laments the intellectuals who “tell us that we live in a post-truth society, where all so-called truths are really only arbitrary assertions meant to hoodwink the gullible in order to acquire or retain power.” Indeed he writes “The status of truth in our postmodern world and with it our attachment to the moral principles on which the United States of America was founded may very well be the most important issue of our time.” Thompson urges us to “remember and celebrate” the Founders’ commitment to moral truth and lives of integrity. 

A third prominent reform idea is to promote a renewed understanding and attachment to the idea of civic friendship. Civic friendship, as Diana Schaub explains, following Aristotle, requires like-mindedness. “Diversity—without the foundation of like-mindedness—is a recipe for growing discord,” she warns. For Schaub, a model solution can be found in the political life of Frederick Douglass, who ably combined activism on behalf of minorities with appreciation for the founding ideals of our nation. “He knew how to balance the politics of grievance with the politics of gratitude,” she writes. 

Like Schaub, Michael Pakaluk and Paul Ludwig similarly argue for the importance of civic friendship understood as like-mindedness. Ludwig contends that civic friendship is not just an ideal but “is doing real work in society” which needs to be acknowledged in the academy and beyond. Pakaluk advocates for civic friendship as a more apt goal for a free society than the thornier idea of the “common good,” so favored by conservative illiberals these days. Both essays suggest that a proper civic education must do more to help students and the broader public appreciate the vital concept of civic friendship.

Taken together the essays in Renewing America’s Civic Compact sketch out a broad vision of what higher education reform should entail: colleges and universities must avoid elevating politics over truth; they must resist efforts to shut down speech and open themselves up to greater degrees of democratic accountability. More positively, higher education should make greater space for questioning postmodern assumptions about truth and treat civic friendship as a more serious object of study and teaching. We must harbor no illusions about the pressing importance of such reforms. As Andrew Sullivan reminds us “we all live on campus now”—if we want a hopeful civic future, we all have a stake in getting these institutions back on track.

Thomas Kelly is vice president of civics initiatives at the Jack Miller Center.

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