Civic Virtue and the Academy

THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Claire Gaudiani
Title: Civic Virtue and the Academy
VTR: 1/15/1992

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And late in 1991 when my guest today and I were together in a Moscow conference on the anatomy of hate, organized by the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, I admired enormously her telling comments about the pursuit of global civic virtues as an important goal of American higher education. Now, Claire Gaudiani is the popular president of Connecticut College, and her sense of the academy’s opportunity and obligation to foster civic virtue commands our respectful attention. But I want to ask Dr. Gaudiani just how to achieve her objective on the campus. And too, do we really know what civic virtue is? Now, I know that’s a tough question Dr. Gaudiani, but what is it?

GAUDIANI: Well we know when we read the Federalists and our own Constitution and our own Declaration of Independence; we know as Americans what civic virtues really are. They are the virtues that are part of citizenship in a democracy. And in fact, Jefferson and Madison and the rest of the Federalists made civic virtues a real part of the way they conceptualized democracy. It simply wasn’t a matter of writing a Bill of Rights. It was also a matter of identifying the responsibilities of citizenship. And I think over the last, particularly over the last fifty or sixty years, we have had a real focus in this country on rights. And we’ve gradually lost sight of the civic virtues that our founding fathers made a part of our democracy.

HEFFNER: But isn’t the responsibility of the academy to reflect back in a democratic society what the values and the virtues, so called, of a contemporary society are? And if we have lost this, what is the business of the academy in this? What is the business of the college you head in this?

GAUDIANI: Well in fact, before the turn of the century, college presidents taught every semester and the course they taught was a course on moral education. Derek Bok talks about this in his recent book on higher education. And I think we have to get back in the academy to a sense of our responsibility to lead, to educate with intent; to make sure that the young people who go through our institutions of higher education are not only knowledgeable in the disciplines that they study with us, but they’re also knowledgeable about the responsibilities of citizens in a democracy. We’re part of a world now where Americans will have a leadership role we haven’t had to assume in quite this way ever before. With the collapse of the Marxist/Communist model as the alternative system that we’ve been struggling with in the last forty years, Americans will be called upon to lead from our ideology. We’ll be called to lead from our common pursuit of the ideal of a democracy. That’s what’s written in our Declaration of Independence and in our Bill of Rights. We wrote down an ideal of a democracy. We’re still pursuing it. We’re still very far away from achieving that ideal. But the academy has a responsibility as it educates Americans and American citizens for leadership to help us to remember the basics. And the basics are the civic virtues which frame our culture.

HEFFNER: Yes, but you say which frames our culture, the civic virtues which frame our culture. I remember on this program, the Open Mind, some years back with Mario Cuomo we were talking about teaching moral values, and one could say civic virtue in our schools. We weren’t talking about colleges; we were talking basically about the lower… about kindergarten through high school. And I asked the governor, “Whose values?” And I ask you, whose concept of civic virtue do we teach? Or are you so certain that today one could identify that there would be a common assumption about what it is we should teach?

GAUDIANI: Well I think one of the pieces of work that the colleges and universities really have to do is to go back and study civic virtues. This is what we’re doing at Connecticut College right now. There’s a group of fifteen faculty members who are engaged in a project called “Global Civic Virtue and the Western Tradition”, and they’re going back together and they are studying the traditional American civic virtues. And they are studying them in the context of contemporary American life and the demands of global society. And then we’re going together with a group of scholars, some of whom will come from the project that you and I participated on in Moscow, and together we’re going to identify, or work toward identifying a set of global civic virtues; civic virtues which we could agree upon across countries, where so valuable that if they were practiced by peoples in all different cultures, human life would be better. There would be more justice, more security, more opportunity for people to pursue life, liberty, and happiness.

HEFFNER: Do you think that a people who are, and I’m thinking about us now without even considering your expansion into global civic virtue, do you think a people so lacking in a sense of religion are competent to identify virtue? Do you think you can separate the two out: civic virtues without reference to a sense of a higher being?

GAUDIANI: Well in fact that’s a really interesting question because one of the things the founding fathers had to cope with was freedom of religion, and therefore not associating civic virtues with a specific religion. Now they were operating in a Judeo-Christian context. And clearly that is the context for civic virtue in the West, and will probably continue to be the frame in which we think as we think about civic virtues and the American civic virtues. Nonetheless, these virtues really operate in a secular frame and they operate from a definition of citizenship and relation to community. Now many people will want to say citizenship in relation to community in relation to a higher being. Well that’s fine, but that doesn’t have to be there. What we’re really talking about in civic virtue is the balance for civil rights. The rights in the Constitution protect the individual from the state and from the majority and guarantee individual rights. Civic virtues protect the community from the selfishness and even the evil that an individual can do, because civic virtues create a kind of responsibility, a set of behaviors that I am supposed to act from as a member of a democracy. So it becomes incumbent upon me to practice civic virtues that affect the common good, and I have civic rights which others grant me. And if we all operate that way then our society, a democracy, can really operate. We’re talking about virtues like honesty and tolerance. We’re talking about independence and self-sufficiency. In this country, we’re talking about volunteerism and philanthropy. Think of the barn raisings in the colonial days, and all through our history where a whole community of people get together and they sacrifice their time to help a fellow citizen, knowing full well that next month or next year if they need that kind of help, the community will help them. It’s a practice of civic virtues, the personal behaviors that affect the health of the civitas, of the city. And that can be with a religion or without a religion. And in this country we wouldn’t be likely to identify these virtues with a religion necessarily.

HEFFNER: What makes you pick this time to develop this communitarian notion? Is it a sense of desperation that drives you to it?

GAUDIANI: Well interestingly I was part of a project at the college where Paul Ylvisaker, a wonderful leader in American education, came to speak to Connecticut College faculty and trustees. And one of the things Paul said was that over the last millennium the major texts which have really shaped the development of human life have focused on rights; starting from Magna Carta, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and the Declaration of Independence, and in fact even major chunks of the Helsinki Final Act in 1975 where section 7 deals with human rights. So we have had in this millennium a rising sense of the rights of the individual, the sacredness of the individual. And that’s been a splendid development about which we can all be very proud, and frankly where the West has taken a major leadership role.

But now we begin to see what happens when the individual stands outside of, or even sometimes to the detriment of the society or community that he or she is a part of. And Paul suggested, and many of us believe, that as we begin this new millennium the charge to all of us will be to integrate the needs of the community back into the rights of individuals; to call these newly enfranchised, newly freed individuals to a sense of personal responsibility through virtuous behavior toward the community that each of us is a part of.

HEFFNER: Well if you were to take the young men and young women at Connecticut College, how would you suspect or how do you know they will respond to this, outside of the context of shall I say youthful enthusiasm for what’s right and for what’s good? What sense do you have in terms of what you know about their interests for the future, for themselves in the future?

GAUDIANI: Richard, I think young people are leading this effort. I see it all the time at Connecticut College. Look at the amount of volunteerism going on among young people right now. At Connecticut College 600 of the 1,600 students are engaged in ongoing community service efforts on behalf of others in the city of New London and the surrounding area. At the college, our young people have an honor code. In the last two years they have stiffened the penalties for infractions of the honor code. They’re more aware than many of the adults are in many communities that in the absence of responsible behavior, by each of them as individuals, that honor code is in jeopardy for the whole community. And so their approach to training the freshman to understand the honor code and to take it seriously has changed. Their approach to punishment has changed and it’s an action that the students have taken up for themselves. I think young people are recognizing that rights are extraordinarily important and need to continue to be minded and watched, but that we all participate as members of a community and we have responsibilities to that community. And in fact virtuous behavior is a way that we express our responsibility as individuals to the community by acting honestly even though we could get away with acting dishonestly, because one considers the fact that if everyone did the wrong thing then the community couldn’t be sustained, and so on as you look at the other virtues. You have to expect the best.

HEFFNER: Now do you think that to any significant extent that your experience is based upon the choices that Connecticut makes of the young men and women who attend the college, who are admitted to the college? Very seriously, you have a, I’m not going to use the word elite, but you have a carefully chosen group of young men and women.

GAUDIANI: Well in fact though colleges like Connecticut College and there are a number of, of course a large number of liberal arts colleges like Connecticut College are co-ed, they draw on a broad range of economic backgrounds. Forty-five percent of the students are on financial aid for instance. They draw on a broad range of ethnic groups. But they draw on the same age group of young people who have watched the evolution even of the last seven or eight years when they’ve really been conscious, and I think they’re concerned about how things will go in the future. I think they’re aware of a developing and changing relationship that American citizens have to the rest of the world. I see that in the way the students acted after we divested from our stock in South Africa. They stepped forward with me and a set of faculty members and they said, “We want to work on behalf of the people in South Africa. We want to alleviate suffering. We understand that simply no longer owning stock was easy for us to encourage. We want to do a project with people.” And in fact, we have a partnership underway that unites the work of our undergraduates, the work of the middle and high school students in the city of New London, about half of whom are minority young people, and the people of the village of Umtata, working together to advance the quality of life for people in each of those parts of the partnership. Our students told us that they believe they’ll learn as much as they teach and receive as much as they give from this partnership.

HEFFNER: Now, it interests me in terms of what you just said that as you talk about this project, this developing project in global civic virtue, that you talked about the Western world… and the values of the Western world. Now doesn’t that fly in the face of the drive toward what we have called, loosely, multiculturalism here? Isn’t it a manifestation of the refusal to embrace all groups? You’re talking about Western values, Western traditions. How so?

GAUDIANI: Well in fact we have to be, I think, honest and proud of the fact that concepts of democracy arise from Western culture. That’s ok. Even those of us who are oriented in a liberal direction don’t have to be fearful of being perfectly proud of the fact that democracy emerges from the Western tradition. But part of the project that’s underway now at Connecticut College is a project that will go in search of the hallmark virtues of other cultures around the world. Because in fact while we have a set of virtues that emerge from our Western culture and particularly our Anglo-Saxon culture, there are whole sets of virtues that we’re not very well known for, that we don’t have very well developed. And we find those in cultures, for instance, that have great respect for age. We find virtues that we can learn from in cultures that are more nurturant toward children than our culture is in its natural configuration. There are cultures that put a higher value on family loyalty, in fact, looking at the family as the most important piece of the community, first step beyond the individual. There are cultures that have a much more tender and respectful relationship to the environment, to nature, than we do. Our ideas about the relationship between man, and it was “man”, and nature were framed by the work of people like John Locke and his notions of nature being forced to surrender her goodies to man as man made this inexorable march toward the future. Indian societies, for instance, American Indian societies have a naturally more respectful, symbiotic, gentle relationship to nature. We have virtues that we need to learn, those of us who are members of U.S., standard sort of Western culture.

HEFFNER: Claire, it seems to me that throughout human history what you have had have been opposing forces, one saying that our virtues are those that are almost God-given, and the other saying exactly the same thing even though the virtues, as you say, are so different. As we search out these conflicting virtues, what makes you feel that we can integrate them in that way, particularly when you talk about individualism as opposed to authority?

GAUDIANI: Well I guess I’m encouraged that it’s possible to undertake this work fruitfully when I look at something like the Helsinki ’75 agreement, which was a document which probably hasn’t gotten enough play in the United States. But when one goes through that document one see what groups of people from very different cultures were able to put down as elements of global importance to the future of human beings. One of the sections, 7, talks about human rights. And when you and I met with Gorbachev a few weeks ago in Moscow you remember he talked about how important that document had been in alerting him to the relationship between human rights in a country and economic prosperity. So I think it is possible, now in this period of increasing global interdependence, for human beings from very different cultural bases to sit down and begin to identify what is good for most human beings, what is commonly likely to engender a better quality of life for all of us. And equality and tolerance are two that come to mind, and that begin to create a kind of a bedrock for discussions about civic virtue.

HEFFNER: You know, primary to our involvement to civic virtue certainly would be the emphasis on the individual that you referred to before, not necessarily the overemphasis but the emphasis. I couldn’t help but think when we were in the former Soviet Union that, asking oneself how could these people after three quarters of a century under tyranny, how could we find surfacing, bubbling to the surface the same kind of desire for self-expression that we have nurtured in this country. And therefore I guess I have asked myself whether, and I’ve been concerned about its being such a self-centered notion, whether we haven’t here in terms of our forefathers, not necessarily in terms of what we have manifested in recent years, really identified the essence of the good society, the emphasis on the dignity of the individual. And I wonder how that will conform to other parts of the world, to other societies where the emphasis has not been at all upon the dignity of the individual?

GAUDIANI: Richard, I couldn’t agree with you more. That’s why I believe we have such a special role now in American society. The collapse of the Marxist/Communist model puts us in a very special position to help other societies, and we have to do this humbly – ready to learn from them as well as teach them, but humbly to assist other societies in coming to grips with the dignity of the individual, someone who is capable of operating responsibly in his society and who also deserves the rights that every citizen in the United States has and citizens in western democracies have. We have an opportunity now to lead not just from military might or economic might, but from ideology. And it’s not because, I emphasize again, because we’re doing it perfectly; but because there’s an ideal embedded in our concepts of western democracy that in fact other people are freely stepping toward. After all, the statue that rose in Tiananmen Square looked very much like someone in New York Harbor. And the song they were singing as the Berlin Wall came down, well, they were singing our song, they were singing “We Shall Overcome”. It’s not we who are imposing this on other peoples. It is other peoples who are looking at these ideals, and wishing what we have for themselves. And it’s our responsibility to be humble about the fact that we haven’t achieved perfection here. We’re striving as well. But also to be generous about helping to teach what we have learned.

HEFFNER: Now in the few minutes and they’re very few that we have left, I want to go back to the point that you made that at the turn of this century, university presidents, college presidents such as yourself taught civic virtue. Do you think it’s possible to do so now with the current climate of opinion, and will you devote yourself to that?

GAUDIANI: Well in fact in the work that’s going on now at the College, we’re going to try to come up with an appropriately designed opportunity for students and faculty to undertake work on this concept of global civic virtue: American civic virtues, American civic virtues reconsidered for modern times and thinking, and then the search for the hallmark civic virtues in other cultures which we need to learn, and then finally to begin to coalesce a notion of civic virtues for all people. It’ll be our responsibility, I think as part of general education to do the exploration. Nobody will come up with perfect answers. But to let young people know that we are educating them with intent, with the intent that they be leadership citizens in democracies. And democracies will be developing, as best we see happening right now around us, all around the world. And particularly liberal arts graduates need to have an opportunity to study like this as part of their general education requirement.

HEFFNER: Does that mean that the college president and her faculty will act again more in the role of, well in loco parentis, as we used to say “crazy like a parent”? Will you be obliged therefore, will you have that opportunity and that need to act that way?

GAUDIANI: We’ll be pursuing these studies with students. We’ve learned to operate not only with students, but also cum parentibus instead of in loco parentis, with parents and with students in an exploration on behalf of civic virtue, on behalf of a different understanding of the responsibilities that Americans, and educated Americans, and liberal arts educated Americans will have in the coming millennium. And so yes, I hope to be a part of it. I know that the faculty at Connecticut College, through this project that they’re working on together at its very earliest stages, intend to have an effect on the curriculum for undergraduates.

HEFFNER: Do you think, in the thirty seconds left, that you’re going to be more successful…. Strike that. Do you think the larger universities will be able to be as successful as you can be in a small liberal arts college like Connecticut College?

GAUDIANI: We have a sense of community. And I think the sense of community is a very important first step to building a consciousness about the relationship between rights and virtues, between rights and civic responsibilities. So it may be that in the coming decade, and even century, it will fall to small private liberal arts colleges to take a leadership role in designing how it will be possible for us to go forward educating with the intent of making virtues a part of liberal education.

HEFFNER: Sounds good to me, Dr. Gaudiani. Thank you so much for joining me today.

GAUDIANI: Thank you, Richard. It was a pleasure to be with you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program today, please write The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts, please send $2.00 in check or money order.

And in the meantime, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.

Leave a Reply

Send me THIRTEEN's free weekly program update email

Please note that the THIRTEEN editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness. No solicitations or advertisements will be allowed. Users may link to other Web sites relevant to discussion, but most often links to commercial Web sites will not be permitted.

Produced by THIRTEEN    ©2014 WNET, All Rights Reserved.