Civic Virtue, Public Education, and Democracy

J. Keith Motley, PhD, UMass Boston Chancellor | May 02, 2013

Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties, and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in the various parts of the country, and among the different orders of people, it shall be the duty of legislators and magistrates... to cherish the interest of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them. — John Adams, 1780

“The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves. — John Adams, 1785

These words, spoken in 1780 and 1785 respectively, are the thoughts of no less a partner in the constitution of this nation and an anxious defender of liberty than John Adams. It is clear from his writings left to posterity that he valued public education for its ability to inculcate intelligence and skill, to pass on technical capacities, generate social mobility, and for its contributions to the nation’s economy – in short, for its instrumental contributions. However, there is a surpassing concern that drives Adams’s desire to see education made universally available and publicly funded.  Adams was always concerned with the specter and tendencies within societies toward descent into tyranny in its various manifestations. 

Hence, he sought for the fledgling American nation, which he had just helped to construct, the cultivation of human virtue through education to preserve the liberties which remain the bedrock of a free society. 

These virtues may be understood as inherent capabilities that reach beyond skill, technology, and craft. If allowed to do so, education can develop great discipline and work ethic that enhance one’s productivity. Yet, I believe that it should also engender deep insight into human cultural, social, political, and spiritual being, which when made available to folk of the many varying backgrounds and differences of this society – or what Adams refers to in his Thoughts on Government as  “the different orders of people” – combats the establishment of a monopoly on ideas about truth, good, beauty, or human happiness by privileged individuals or groups in society.  Liberty is preserved when “the people” inculcate capacities to examine human activity in its various spheres of existence and recognize historical patterns at work that marginalize or empower, exclude or include, obscure or clarify – that subjugate or liberate. When virtues such as these are cultivated and expressed publicly, I believe they have a multiplier effect upon the culture and polity of a community and the nation. 

As idealistic as this appeal to virtue may sound, I believe it was at work in a very profound way in this most recent crisis visited upon our city, a city that is well known for its high concentration of people with higher education degrees. As the scenario unfolded and information began to seep out regarding the Chechnyan background of the suspects and the possibility of there being ties to the Muslim religion, one noticed among Bostonians a strange kind of constraint to their comments regarding the suspects. While on a national level there was a rush to judgment about connections to Al Qaeda or Islamic militants, among Bostonians there was a quiet, almost civic patience that was determined to allow the full story to unfurl before definitive statements were made. And even when connections to a militant religious movement were established, the avoidance of stereotypes or making broad statements about any group of people have prevailed in and around the city, though it had been so deeply affected by tragedy. 

These virtues, powerful though they are, provide the civic background for the extraordinary qualities displayed by so many who responded bravely and selflessly amidst the chaos following the explosions; who confronted the suspects in armed combat in the night; who provide leadership for our cities and towns even now in the aftermath of the crisis.  I am proud to say that many of our students and alumni are among the many categories of civic leadership who have responded to this crisis.

What we have seen in this subtle difference in emphasis associated with our city speaks powerfully to the ideal of public education that Adams spoke of. We have seen in our history, how the hysteria generated in crisis has resulted in the curtailment of freedoms, closing of borders and the public painting of entire races, ethnicities, and nationalities with suspicion. Thus far, Boston’s response has focused on maintaining a free and open community, with negative suspicions directed most appropriately at the suspected perpetrators with a view toward understanding and prevention. This, my colleagues, is what expanded access to education can do, and I believe, has done in our communities.  We are by no means perfect, but I am suggesting that we have experienced the multiplier effect of the extension of education to a greater proportion of the community. It is why Adams sought the education of the “whole people.”

We in public higher education are working to inculcate virtues that undergird a healthy democracy — beyond just the inclination to vote.  For example:

This pursuit is a public enterprise meant to be directed toward all.  This is not to negate the fine work being done by many private institutions in the Commonwealth and across the nation.  However, a purely private enterprise always runs the risk of being unduly influenced by some private interest that may leave some segment of the “whole people” excluded. 

We recognize that providing exposure for the public to these civic virtues allows for the ongoing civic conversations necessary to preserve a healthy democracy.

But I also note here Adams’s insistence that “the whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it.” This suggests that a critical element of civic virtue is the willingness to share the benefits as well as the burden of public education. Citizenship, in our view, is both a privilege and a responsibility; hence, to call for access, to demand excellence, and to require accountability, one must be willing to shoulder the burden of support. Otherwise, one is in danger of adopting the vice of seeking to get “something for nothing.” This is the foundation upon which my colleagues and I who lead public higher education institutions stand as we seek to push the Commonwealth to do more in this regard. 

As Boston’s public research university, we embrace this noble responsibility to aid in the development of citizens who understand and appreciate the dearness and fragility of liberty in our communities, our Commonwealth, our nation, and our world. I do not think one can put a dollar figure to this dimension of our educational mission and this may be the reason that this aspect is so undervalued in a culture which has become fixated on the economic life. However, if we shrink from the responsibility to invest in these moral and intellectual assets, how comprehensive and far reaching will be the bankruptcy that we experience as a culture, and how impoverished will our nation be?  Our way of life, our sense of freedom depends very heavily upon our shared understanding of what is the good and what are the ends of authentic human life. While we may never arrive at full agreement, we will, as a proud public university, endeavor to keep the debate current and its quality high.

At the University of Massachusetts Boston, we both embrace and extend this heritage of civic virtue in an ever earnest pursuit of “a more perfect union.” I remain undaunted in my faith that this is the right time, this is the right place, and we are the right people to undertake this lofty endeavor. As I have stated on many occasions, we are the University of Massachusetts Boston, but I have never been more proud to be your Chancellor.

Thank you.