NC universities must cultivate civic leaders

Johannes Kap

Most students and their families invest time, effort, and resources in higher education for career reasons. They expect that the knowledge, skills and relationships they acquire at a college or university will lead to good jobs – which in turn will generate income for graduates to support themselves and their families, as well as the satisfaction and fulfillment that comes from productive employment or entrepreneurship.



Whether you like it or not, this is a fact. Before the mid-20th century, colleges and universities were elite institutions, experienced by only a small portion of the population and funded primarily by tuition and private donations. Even then, most graduates weren’t just there to read Plato, study fine arts, or master quadratic equations for their own good. They were prepared for leadership roles in law, medicine, religion, commerce or civil affairs.

The GI Bill of Rights – and state universities’ concurrent expansion in access and funding – has vastly expanded the scope of higher education. Now, more than a third of Americans have completed a four-year college degree and nearly half hold at least a college degree or postsecondary degree.

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I often write about the productivity of higher education and make no apologies for focusing primarily on the financial costs and benefits. That’s what worries most prospective students and their families. But my own concerns are broader than that.

I truly believe in the intrinsic value of expanding the mind – of pursuing the true, the beautiful and the good. For example, I think all college students should study a core curriculum in the liberal arts before turning to professional preparation. I also believe that state institutions like the University of North Carolina should continue to fulfill one of their original functions: cultivating leaders.

In the past, only a small and unrepresentative elite could aspire to a leadership role. Fortunately, that is no longer the case. Yet most people who lead businesses, governments, nonprofits, churches and other organizations are college or university graduates. Beyond teaching specific disciplines or professional skills, campuses must prepare their graduates for leadership roles in their communities.

That’s one reason why the UNC System is implementing a new requirement that graduates complete courses that, among other elements, study six major documents: the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, the Federalist Papers, the Gettysburg Address, the Emancipation Proclamation and Declaration of Martin Luther King. ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail.’

Of course, all voters should learn the basics of American government. That’s why we have citizenship requirements in high school, although you could argue that North Carolina should do more to improve the design and instruction of those courses. However, the justification for doing more at the university level is that future leaders – by which I mean not just future politicians, activists and administrators, but also the broader group of community leaders who participate in and shape the public conversation – need a deeper approach. delve into these foundational texts.

Likewise, the new School of Civic Life and Leadership (SCiLL) at UNC-Chapel Hill will offer students the opportunity to develop the virtues and skills they need to practice wise and effective leadership. The new interdisciplinary minor will “bring people together to explore deeply human questions about freedom, justice and equality,” says Jed Atkins, the school’s newly appointed dean, and will produce “thoughtful citizens who think reflectively about our political lives.”

In other words, the kind of citizens who can lead North Carolina to a better future.

“At a time of increasing polarization and declining public trust in our institutions,” said Atkins, “the development of SCiLL represents a remarkable opportunity for America’s first public university to continue to lead our country in preparing ‘a rising generation’ to a life of thoughtful people. citizen involvement that is necessary for a flourishing democracy.”

In an article discussing SCiLL and similar initiatives on other campuses, Beth Akers and Joe Pitts of the American Enterprise Institute argued that in “a country devoid of formative institutions, universities are uniquely positioned to repair our social fabric – as long as they take their responsibilities to our country seriously.”

Good for UNC – and for all of us.

John Hood is a board member of the John Locke Foundation. His latest books, Mountain Folk and Forest Folk, combine epic fantasy with early American history (