Press Release

On April 9, John King delivered a major speech on advancing the civic mission of higher education in challenging times as part of the University of Maryland’s inaugural Dean’s Lecture on Education and Society.


Good evening everybody. Thank you, President Loh and Dean Rice for the kind introduction and for the invitation to speak tonight. Thank you to the University of Maryland community for joining us this evening. I’m grateful for this opportunity to talk with you about a subject about which I care very deeply—as a former social studies teacher, as a visiting professor here at the university, and as an American.

Today, I want to talk about the relationship between education and democracy. I want to challenge our nation’s colleges and universities, including this very community, to renew their civic missions and to take even greater responsibility for educating students to become informed and engaged citizens who are prepared to contribute to our society and to help solve the most pressing challenges facing our communities and our world today.

These are indeed, as President Loh described, challenging and fraught times. We see conflicts and divisive politics in America and around the globe.

We see disparities in opportunity that in our nation are so often drawn along lines of race, class, and gender. We see frustration directed at the other, which focuses blame on immigrants, those who practice a different faith, or those of a different ethnic background. We see our country’s ongoing struggle with issues of race and bias all too often in the interactions between communities and police, which all too often result in needless deaths. We see domestic terrorism, like we saw on the campus of the University of Virginia. And we hear rhetoric that targets people because of their religion, because of their race, because of their LGBTQ status, because of their family’s country of origin.

Indeed, hate crimes are up in levels that we have not seen in recent history. And we know that a growing number of American communities are increasingly segregated by race and class. In many ways, this is a moment where it seems the United States is not living up to its promise of equality and opportunity. But I believe deeply, as I ever have, that even in times of discord America is resilient—America is hope.

One of the reasons that I’m optimistic is because of young people, the young people who are gathered here in this room for a discussion on the topic of civic learning and engagement. But I’m also optimistic because of the hundreds of thousands of young people across the country who were recently motivated to make their voices heard on issues they care about by participating in school walkouts and rallies, including my daughters. I’m optimistic because of the young people of Parkland, Florida, who after surviving a tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, leveraged social media to create the #NeverAgain movement and organize the March for Our Lives—one of the largest student-led protests we’ve seen in the country since the Vietnam War. These students are driving an important national dialogue about issues of guns, gun violence, and mental health. The students from Stoneman Douglas are poised and outspoken activists.

But that is no accident. Their words and actions are informed and powerful precisely because of the well-rounded education they received at Stoneman Douglas—which in many ways emphasize the very knowledge and skills that are necessary for effective civic engagement.

The education they received is one that provides learning about political activism, about free speech, about American history and government. It’s an education that includes, because of a district-wide commitment to require civic education in middle school and high school, a public speaking program that teaches the skills of speech-making and debate.

It’s an education that is rich in extracurricular offerings like theatre, and arts, and world languages, and sciences. It’s an education that includes exceptional programs in journalism which prepared the Stoneman Douglas students, in the words of Christie Ma, editor of the school newspaper, “to show the world what was going on and why we need change.”

Unfortunately, not all of the students in our nation’s K-12 schools or colleges have access to the kind of rich education that includes robust civic engagement.

Maryland is in fact the only state, in the company of the District of Columbia, that requires both civics courses and community service for high school graduation. Just eight states require that high school students pass a test in civics to earn their diploma. And according to a recent analysis by the Center for American Progress, no state in the nation, not one, currently provides students with a comprehensive K-12 civic education.

It’s not surprising then that only about one in five students in the eighth and twelfth grades has a working knowledge of the Constitution, the presidency, Congress, the courts and how laws are made.

And as all too often happens in our country, we are failing our low-income students and students of color at a higher rate.

In fact, only about one in ten African-American, Hispanic, and low-income students has a working knowledge of how government functions. When the majority of students in our nation’s public elementary and secondary schools are now students of color and low-income students, if we continue to fail these children, our nation has no future. Our economy and our democracy have no future.

At the postsecondary level, few colleges have an explicit civics program or require students to take courses that are purposefully designed to prepare them for civic responsibilities.

Indeed, large numbers of undergraduate students never complete a single course in economics, or American politics, or government. Few students, outside of those intending to earn a degree in these or related fields, take a course in political philosophy or international affairs. And while most colleges report that a majority of their students engage in some form of community service, less than half of participating undergraduates can link their community service activities with a course or a program that asks them to draw connections between their service and issues of public policy.

Students’ experience in school from kindergarten through college impacts their civic understanding as adults. It’s worrisome that only 26 percent of Americans, when surveyed, can name all three branches of government. And that nearly 40 percent of Americans cannot identify any of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Students’ experiences in school also impact the civic actions in which they engage as adults. As President Loh referenced, voter participation has reached its lowest point in nearly two decades. Despite a small uptick in youth voting in the last election, this is deeply troubling. In fact, in 2016, the U.S. ranked 28th out of 35 western democracies in voter turnout.

When we think about the responsibilities of good citizens, we often think primarily about voting. And I want to pause on that for just a moment.

Voting is unquestionably the cornerstone of freedom. The right to vote undergirds all of our other rights. And throughout our history, people have fought and died to be treated as full citizens and to be able to cast a ballot.

It’s important for us to remember that it was more than 130 years after the ratification of the Constitution before women in this country were allowed to vote through the passage of the 19th Amendment. It’s also important to remember that it wasn’t until 1965 and the passage of the Voting Rights Act that African-Americans were finally guaranteed a place at the ballot box, even though, 100 years earlier, the 15th Amendment had prohibited federal and state governments from denying citizens the right to vote based on race.

This isn’t ancient history.

Consider that all throughout the United States, you can find African-American voters today who can still remember the sting of having to pass a literacy test before being allowed to register and vote.

We need to continue to be vigilant to ensure that the right to vote is protected.

But voting alone, although critically important, is not the whole of our responsibility as citizens in a strong democracy. Indeed, the strength of our democracy depends on all of us, as good citizens, understanding our history, the Constitution, and how government works at every level.

It depends on our willingness to march in the streets and exercise our right to protest, just as so many young people did in recent weeks. But our democracy depends even on more than that. It’s not just about hashtags. It depends on more than voicing outrage at some injustice on social media.

The Parkland students are an example of not just using social media to convey an idea or a concern or a request for a change of policy—they’re taking their activism online to offline by advocating in the streets and in town halls.

The fact is, all of us are and must be democracy builders—no matter our zip code, no matter our race, no matter where we worship or whether we worship, no matter how much money we make.

And as I’ll describe in a few moments, institutions of higher education, like the University of Maryland and colleges throughout the country, have a vital role to play in preparing graduates not only for good jobs and fulfilling lives, but for what should be one of the most active and important roles in their lives, the role of citizen.

We build our democracy when we become informed and thoughtful about national, state, and local issues. And when we stand up for our rights by sitting down at community meetings and engaging with our neighbors.

We build our democracy when we get involved in solving problems both inside and beyond our own cities and towns. And when we join campaigns and run for office ourselves.

And we build our democracy when we think beyond our own needs and wants, and embrace our obligations to the greater good.

Preparing Americans for their role as citizen, in fact, long has been a central mission of education in this country, and was described by the Founders. In the early 1800s, Thomas Jefferson wrote how education must prepare students to “understand their duties to their neighbors and country and to know their rights, and to exercise with order and justice, those rights they retain.”

History also teaches us that our society continually has turned to higher education to instill and advance democratic ideals and practices.

It happened in the midst of the Civil War when President Lincoln signed the Morrill Act establishing grants of land, so that states could finance institutions of higher education. The University of Maryland is in fact one of these early land grant colleges.

It also happened in the era following World War II, when returning soldiers headed to colleges and universities, so they could make better lives for themselves, their families, and their communities, with the help of the G.I. Bill.

And it happened in 1947, when President Truman’s Commission on Higher Education released a seminal report calling for states to create a system of community colleges that could educate the large masses of veterans coming home from abroad. It’s important to note that Truman’s commission didn’t just issue their call for the creation of community colleges in economic terms. The commission stated, in fact, that the first and foremost charge upon higher education is that all levels and in all fields of specialization, it shall be the carrier of democratic values, ideals, and processes.

Even today, more than 70 years later, a call to reinvigorate the civic mission of higher education is not in conflict with the work that colleges are doing to ensure students graduate and to prepare them for success in the workplace.

Indeed, there is much encouraging research that shows students who are provided with robust civic learning opportunities are more likely to complete college on time. And the skills and capacities that people need to thrive in the workplace are not different from those they need to succeed in our diverse democratic society as citizens—skills such as critical thinking and problem solving, bridge building across areas of difference, effective listening and communication, collaborative decision making, and teamwork.

In 1948, while a 19-year-old student at Morehouse College, Martin Luther King Jr. penned a powerful and still relevant reflection on the purpose of education directed particularly at colleges. Given that just this past week we marked the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, it’s important to reflect on the power of his words and legacy and perhaps humbling for all of us that this powerful legacy begins with an essay he wrote for the Maroon Tiger while a college student. I wish for every student here that their writing at 19 should be quoted in a speech many, many years hence.

Dr. King wrote, in that powerful essay that the function of education is to “teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency, may prove the greatest menace to society.” King continued, “We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character, that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.”

Dr. King wrote in that essay about the then governor of Georgia, saying that the Governor had many academic accomplishments … indeed, he was a Phi Beta Kappa. But Dr. King noted that the Governor “also believes in my inferiority as a human being.” And he asked his classmates, his university, all of us, “Can one be truly educated, if those are one’s values?” So, civic education isn’t just about knowledge and skills, it is also about values. It’s about a commitment to our democracy.

Now, there are those who say that elevating the civic mission of higher education should not be pursued because they see it as a purely partisan political goal.

To these critics, I say that as institutions that operate in and depend upon democratic society for their existence, colleges absolutely should make it part of their primary mission to equip students to be knowledgeable, active citizens who can build up the health of that very democratic society.

This goal doesn’t presuppose any specific political end. It makes our nation stronger. And it actually serves to advance the enlightened self-interest of higher education itself.

Quality civic learning, which digs into challenging issues and instills in students democratic knowledge and skills, and the inclination to serve … works. It equips students for demanding careers and to help our country solve difficult and complex problems. Indeed, research compiled by the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools shows that students who receive a quality civic education are more likely to vote, they are four times more likely to volunteer and work on community issues, and they are more confident in their ability to speak publicly and communicate with elected officials.

So what will it take? What will it take for colleges and universities to reclaim their civic purpose?

A good place to start is by making civic learning an expected part of every student’s postsecondary educational experience.

In fact, that was the main recommendation of a 2012 federal report commissioned by the Obama administration, and issued by the American Association of Colleges and Universities, and other groups. The report urged colleges to make civic learning and democratic engagement an animating national priority. And it’s important to note that since that report in 2012, there has been progress. There are institutions that have committed to this work.

I think about the work at Wake Forest where they established a task force to identify areas of institutional strength and weakness, across “civic ethos, literacy, inquiry, and action.”

I think about Kingsborough Community College in New York, which developed a two-part civic engagement requirement for graduation that could be fulfilled through coursework and activities within student life.

Clearly there is good work happening on campuses around the country, but there is much, much more to do. And I want to suggest today three areas where universities, including this one, should focus.

First, focus on developing students’ civic knowledge by making civic
learning pervasive throughout the college experience.

There are practical steps that institutions can take to integrate civic learning into the existing curriculum. For example, faculty can include exercises that require students to reflect on the connection between course topics and public policy or a local problem that needs solving.

The Center for Public Deliberation at the University of Houston-Downtown, for example, has helped the school to infuse discussions about complex social and political issues into courses such as “Ethical Decision Making” and “Critical Race Studies.” And through Project Pericles, a consortium of more than 30 colleges, has introduced about 100 civic courses into curricula in recent years. The consortium encourages colleges to examine their civic offerings to determine additional needs by comparing their curricula to peer institutions, and to then develop new courses that will address civic learning. Students—whether they’re preparing for careers in business, science, theater, the trades, arts, or education—all need to develop an understanding of the kinds of civic dilemmas and questions with which professionals in every field invariably grapple.

Civic education can’t just be for the civics course. It can’t just be for the American history and government course. Civics has to be a part of how we think about our work across disciplines—whether a student is being prepared to be an engineer or to be a chemist.

Think about the societal consequences of the rapid advances we are making in genetic science. Those are civic questions that we have to prepare students to engage with. Think about the future doctor and then think about our nation’s struggle to ensure access to quality healthcare for all our citizens. These are civic education questions in which doctors must be prepared to engage.

I would also argue that colleges, like this one, that train teachers, especially elementary school teachers, must require more than just cursory learning in social studies as part of their educator preparation programs. Indeed, the reality across the country is that, too often, social studies is given short shrift in elementary school classrooms.

For example, a recent survey found that more than 80 percent of elementary teachers reported that extra time devoted to math or English language arts has meant less time for other subjects. According to the National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education, the total time spent in grades K-3 on both science and social studies dropped by 45 minutes per week from 2000 to 2012. Indeed, the survey revealed that on average, just 16 minutes of classroom time per day was devoted to social studies in those grades.

We must acknowledge that one of the reasons that this happens is that some districts and schools have responded to accountability for English language arts and math by reducing the time spent on science, on the arts, and on social studies. But this is, of course, exactly backwards.

The tragedy is the pedagogical mistake to suggest that the way to help students read more is for them to have less background knowledge, less vocabulary. We know that, of course, when you start to read, decoding words is critical, but once you are able to fluently decode, the key to comprehending text is the quality of your vocabulary and the depth of your background knowledge. We must ensure that future teachers understand the centrality of knowledge building to student success as readers, their long term academic success, and their preparation for citizenship. Speaking of teachers, if institutions of higher education are to make civic knowledge a priority for students, we also have to recognize civic learning as an important area of investigation and study and scholarship for faculty members across disciplines.

The second key area in which higher education institutions can advance their civic mission is in developing students’ civic skills—civic knowledge and then civic skills.

Students should have the opportunity to do democracy—what some refer to as action civics—by getting involved in actual campus and community issues. Many colleges connect student learning with practice by incorporating field work or case studies into curricula. Service learning is another important way in which students can apply their knowledge to real world scenarios.

At Tufts University, for example, in an Environmental Engineering course, students have learned about hazardous waste by analyzing data from contaminated sites in Boston. The students then developed systems that the city could use to clean up those sites.

Research shows that linking service activities with coursework goes further to encourage students to engage in civic activities after they graduate than just community service alone. And while more than 70 percent of all college students across the country participate in some form of service learning or volunteer work, only half of college students participate in credit-bearing service learning while in school.

Colleges can do more to consider the incentives they provide for service. They can do more to offer opportunities for students to earn credit in service learning. And they can do more to lift up the prestige of service learning on campus.

Rutgers University at Newark, for example, has an established honors living and learning community that encourages students to tackle pressing issues affecting the campus, the city of Newark, and the nation. So, this selective program seeks out talented undergraduates from various backgrounds—including, importantly, first-generation students, veterans, and student-parents—who all live together in a designated intergenerational residence hall and collaborate with faculty and community partners to work on issues of their choice. There is, of course, the CIVICUS program here at the University of Maryland that has similar features, in terms of its emphasis on citizenship, student leadership, community service, and scholarship.

Studies show that service learning directly correlates with greater academic outcomes as well as improved college completion. Indeed, I’ve often argued that we should require national service of all young people in the United States. Imagine the difference it would make. Think about the experience that young people would have working across lines of race and class, if we required of all students, some degree of national service. It could be in the military. It could be in a service opportunity like City Year. It could be working in schools supporting teachers. It could be working to address the damage we’ve done to our environment.

Now, for me, this notion of service learning is deeply personal. One of the reasons I became a teacher and a principal was because of the experience of doing service learning. When I went to college, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer—something President Loh and I have in common. But I started doing volunteer work teaching civics in Boston Public Schools. And then I got involved in an afterschool program in the Mission Hill community in Roxbury. And then I got involved in a summer program in that same community. And having been a kid who grew up in New York City, and whose life was saved by New York City public school teachers, I found that the experience of trying to do for other kids what teachers had done for me was deeply satisfying, and it changed my career plan. I became a teacher and a principal in the very same community where I was doing that volunteer work as an undergraduate. And I could recall in my relationships with my students in Mission Hill, and the experiences I had with amazing New York City public school teachers.

My mom passed away when I was eight, my dad when I was twelve. I’m alive today because of the difference that New York City public school teachers made in my life. Because they made school a place that was engaging and compelling and interesting and safe. A place where I could be a kid when I couldn’t be a kid outside of school. And when I had the privilege of doing that for other young people, it changed my vision of what I wanted to do for my career. In fact, the community where I worked then, Mission Main Housing Project, was then the largest open air crack market in New England. It was a community rife with crime and drugs and violence, but I also saw that it was a community rich with hope and resiliency and tenacity. My experience being a part of that community changed my life and my direction. That’s what service learning can be for young people.

Now, beyond the work of engaging students in the community, the kind of community that universities create also matters. Indeed, the work that colleges do to create a student body that represents people of varying socioeconomic background, race, religion, LGBTQ status, and political orientation, also help students gain the vital skills necessary for participation in our democracy. Students’ experience of diversity on campus can expose them to different perspectives, different cultures, can help prepare them for a diverse workplace, and to engage in the diverse community of American political life.

But the reality is that our higher education institutions have very far to go on this front to ensure that their campuses reflect the diversity we value. Consider the reality that in public flagship universities across the country, only about 5 percent of students are African-American, only about 8 percent are Latino. Consider a recent study of 38 selective colleges, including five in the Ivy League, which showed more students came from families in the top 1 percent of income than from the entire bottom 60 percent.

We have a long way to go to ensure that students’ experience on campus reflects the diversity of American life. I know this is an area of focus for the University of Maryland and I’m hopeful, as I know many of us are, that the Center on Diversity and Inclusion in Higher Education here can play a role in leading other institutions across the country to reflect on the research, to reflect on their practices and their approach, so that we can make progress toward greater equity and diversity.

Now, I want to take a moment to say that in addition to the skills that come with service learning and the kind of diverse campus environment we aspire to, we also have to acknowledge—and perhaps particularly appropriate today, given the testimony in Congress—that technology is powerfully changing the landscape of civic discourse.

Indeed, colleges have an increased obligation to prepare students to be savvy critical consumers of news and information and to navigate the online discussions that can often devolve into being insulting or stifling.

Recent research from the Omidyar Group found that while social media networks provide value to civic life through immediate communication and connections, they do pose dangers. Some of these include—and we’ve seen this in recent times without question—the rapid spread of misinformation, the increased polarization of our society, and the creation of echo chambers where folks can block out all contrarian views and information and only listen to and talk with people who have the very same views that they do.

And college students aren’t unaware of these issues.

In a recent poll, two out of three college students said that platforms such as Twitter and Facebook should take responsibility to limit hate speech—to shape a dialogue that is more civil.

We also know that we can aspire to more than just reducing the presence of hate.

We can aspire to making social media truly a tool for social organizing. Think about Emma Gonzalez, one of the Parkland students, who now has more followers on Twitter than the NRA. So, social media can be this powerful megaphone, but it has to be something that we prepare our young people to use.

In fact, in that same essay that Dr. King penned in 1948, he wrote about the idea that one of the ways in which you could produce “intelligence plus character” was through an education that prepared young people to discern between fact and fiction—to sift through propaganda. It’s quite a prescient essay.

Third, and the final category of work I want to talk about is civic action.

So, there’s civic knowledge, there’s civic skills, and then there’s doing things.

Now, there’s a long tradition of college campuses being a place of civic action. I think about the North Carolina A&T students who inspired young people and adults all across the country during the height of the civil rights movement through their peaceful protests against segregation by integrating Whites-only lunch counters.

I think about the students in the 1970s and 1980s who organized to demand that their campuses divest from South Africa to oppose apartheid.

I think about more recently, the grassroots movement that launched at UCLA around student hunger. Did you know that on many college campuses, hunger and food insecurity are substantial issues? A recent survey showed, among the students surveyed, as high as 36 percent of students experience some degree of food insecurity on campus. A group of students at UCLA saw that and they took civic action. They realized that there were students who weren’t using all the meals on their meal card and so, they organized a campaign called “Swipe Out Hunger,” where students can contribute their unused meal card points to their classmates who are experiencing hunger and food insecurity.

There are countless students on campuses all across the country involved in Student Government Associations who are playing important leadership roles in their communities.

There’s also the work of ensuring that students have the opportunity to vote and that they understand how to register to vote and that they understand where they can vote. There’s an effort called the “All In Campus Democracy Challenge,” of which Maryland is a part, which is a national collaboration among higher education institutions committed to ensuring that their students have access to voting and participate as voters.

Indeed, the University of Maryland was recently recognized as a Silver Seal Campus for its high voter participation rates, but there is more to do to ensure that all students see Election Day as a moment of action. There’s more work to do to ensure that students participate in campaigns, regardless of party. Regardless of their preferences around the political outcomes they seek, all students should understand the political process. Indeed, if you think about all of the students on the University of Maryland campuses, not just here, but across the state, think about the power those students have to influence public policy.

Ultimately, civic knowledge, civic skills, and civic action are all about how we respond to these challenging times, to this difficult moment for the country that President Loh talked about.

Last week, I was in Memphis at the National Civil Rights Museum, because, again, of the 50 years marking the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. That museum is powerful. It is in the Lorraine Motel, the very building where Dr. King was assassinated. You could stand in the room where Dr. King stayed. The museum powerfully tells the story of the civil rights movement.

When we think about what it means to mark 50 years since Dr. King’s assassination, yes, it is a moment for reflection. It’s a moment to tell the historical story of what happened then, of how he lived and served. It is a moment to reflect on the progress we have yet to make as a country 50 years later, and the degree to which the causes to which he dedicated his life remain unfulfilled.

Dr. King would have articulated his mission around combating racism, and poverty, and war. As Dean Rice said, you don’t have to look beyond today’s paper or tonight’s news broadcast to see that we have much more work to do to advance that struggle against the forces of racism, poverty, and war.

But I want to suggest that as we mark that 50th anniversary, reflection is not enough. Necessary but not sufficient. The real call is to action.

The real reason why this civic moment—our current time—matters so much, is that we face huge challenges to our democracy, to notions of equality, to the civil rights of our fellow citizens and our fellow human beings. Dr. King would’ve called us to act, to stand up. For many of us who are too young to have participated in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, we may have, at some point in our lives, reflected on what we would have done then. Would we have ridden on the Freedom Rides? Would we have marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma?

Well, I want to suggest that, ultimately, civic education and civic engagement in challenging times is not about the question of what we would have done then, but about what we will do now.

What will we do now? What will each of us do to advance the cause of a more just society? What will each of us do to stand up to defend our democracy? What will each of us do to ensure the humanity and dignity of our neighbors? What will we do today? What action will we take?

I believe universities have a unique responsibility here. But that is because they are institutions that reflect our moral responsibility to make our society better. That’s what we, as individuals, also should be reflecting upon. That is how we, as individuals, should choose what we do today and tomorrow.

So, this speech, as much as it’s about higher education, as much as it’s about civic education, is also about a call for each of us to reflect on the justice we seek … and then to act.

I’ll close with this: Benjamin Franklin once wrote, “An ability to serve mankind, one’s country, friends, and family, should be the great aim and end of all learning.” Indeed, that is the charge of America’s colleges and universities. That is our charge tonight. Thanks so much.