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Background on the New Academy, and Questions for Bill Galston
September 4, 2007 - 12:42pm



The proposed Public Service Academy would be America's "first national civilian university" dedicated to producing "leaders of character" who would commit, in exchange for free tuition (the government would pay it), to work for "five years of civilian service to the country" in the public sector. "Graduates will be required to go where they are assigned." As with the military academies, you'd be admitted via a recommendation by your congressional representative. Indeed, the Academy would be "modeled on the military service academies," and would feature a "rigorous undergraduate education" for people "committed to devoting their lives to public service." [ UD's taking all of this from the Academy's website.]

(Among the Academy's board of advisors, UD in particular admires William Damon, of Stanford, whose attack on NCATE's now-dumped "dispositions" standard for school teachers itself set a standard for intelligent demolition of stupid ideas.)

The Academy's tripartite curriculum (liberal arts, service learning, international education) would produce teachers, park rangers, police officers, border agents, and other public sector employees. Its free tuition responds to the problem of many public-spirited college graduates turning away from the not terribly well-paid public sphere because, as the website notes, they "rack up so much debt while in school." After their required five-year stint in these jobs, many of these people would presumably move into leadership positions in the non-profit and public sectors.

The Academy wishes to offer a "preeminent bachelor's degree," and a campus life in which there's an enormous focus on character, and personal ethics, and things like "appropriate deportment." In order to create a strong sense of group identity, the campus will offer no fraternities, sororities, or varsity-level intercollegiate sports.

The originators of the idea note in an interview with National Public Radio that this is all about creating a "unique culture of service" that will allow students to "give meaning to their lives." Anything short of a new university will fail to "change the overall culture" in which Americans are insufficiently committed to the public sector, or in which there are too many obstructions to their entering it. The founders call the Public Service Academy "the next great American idea."


Here are the questions UD sent this morning to Bill Galston, who's also involved in the project:

My heart warms to the Academy idea; my head's not so sure. I won't ask the sorts of questions that interviewers - like Melissa Block at NPR, and others - have asked: Don't we already have plenty of colleges offering this sort of thing? What's wrong with increasing government scholarships to them, and having the five-year commitment be in place at those schools? Are college graduates going to want to take low-paying jobs for five years? etc. Rather, I'll ask the sort of questions that I guess a professor might ask.

I'll start with the idea idea. One of the founders, talking to NPR, calls the Academy "the next great American idea." I want to ask you about the idea of a college which revolves very explicitly around an idea. In the case of the military academies, the idea is pretty straightforward: the country will always need experts and leaders in the art of warfare, people who are committed to the military unit, to the ideals of patriotism and defense of the homeland, etc. The military academies have evolved over centuries to refine combat readiness, group morale, leadership, courage, sense of duty, sacrifice for the greater good, and so forth. This is a very specific and easily articulated idea, and it applies to a small, highly defined segment of the American population: our military leadership.

In the case of public service, you have a much more amorphous idea. I can imagine many committed public servants having very different ideas about what public service represents; I can imagine many such people who don't feel the need to articulate any particular philosophy or ethos at all in terms of what they do. I think this represents a challenge in terms of the Academy constructing an on-campus ethos and a curriculum.

And along those lines: On its website, the Academy represents campus life as rather military in nature -- uniforms, mandatory this and that, and a quite elaborate code of conduct. This will perhaps fail to appeal to many potential applicants who may have a burning desire for public service, but who may not see how being a leader in public service necessitates this sort of stringent cultural commitment. Many of my most public-spirited students are basically hippies... Will there inevitably be a rightwing tilt to the Academy, at least in cultural style?

More broadly, it has always seemed to me that colleges too committed to a certain ideology (Patrick Henry College or Ave Maria in Florida would be extreme examples) are doomed to mediocrity. They have a certain pre-defined feel to them -- they appeal only to people who already agree in almost every particular with a certain world view, and their curriculum tends to have a shrunken look. (The in-house version of this problem resides in programs like Women's Studies.) How will the Academy avoid this? Doesn't it want to be wary of overdoing the rhetoric, abundantly there on the website, of earnest patriotic do-gooding? I don't want to come off as a cynic -- I'm very far from that -- but I want to suggest that the Academy, if it overplays the ethical/patriotic rhetoric, will turn off some of the more interesting and intellectual applicants among students and potential faculty.

Or is the Academy not particularly interested in intellectuals? On the faculty or in the student body? As it presents itself, the Academy is very much about hands-on public policy teaching and activist students who, after all, if they stay in the public sector, are unlikely to end up as professors or as what Robert Reich calls 'symbolic analysts.' I take it that this is what the Academy intends (I'm thinking here of the three future student profiles on the website too).


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