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Legacy and Change

March 9, 2018

From Maxwell Perspective...

Legacy and Change

Current initiatives to expand the citizenship program offer a reminder that civic engagement is one of the School’s trademark themes, tested and proven by time.

Ralph Ketcham began teaching citizenship at the Maxwell School in 1951, when, as a doctoral student in social science, he became a teaching assistant for the course called Responsible Citizenship, or Cit 1. Thoroughly enjoying the challenges of the interdisciplinary course, Ketcham was keenly aware that Cit 1 carried on a legacy of citizenship education that extended back to the founding of the School in 1924. In fact, Ketcham's mentor, Michael Sawyer, then a junior faculty member, had taken the original Responsible Citizenship course himself as an undergraduate in the newly opened Maxwell Hall.

Ketcham still teaches at Maxwell, now as a professor emeritus of history, public affairs, and political science. He recalls his formative years in Cit 1, directed in that era by American studies professor Stuart Brown.

"It was really a combined course on democratic government and the responsibilities that entailed for citizens," Ketcham says. "The first half was the study of ideas of democratic government as they'd been developed in the United States, and then in the second half we switched to practical applications."

   • From the Ground Up
   • Legacy & Change

   • Public Affairs and CCE
   • The Tanner Lectures
   • Robert McClure
   • Kristi Andersen

Statue of George Washington from Eggers Hall

Ketcham pulls from his shelf a series of booklets titled Problems of American Citizenship that compiled current articles on the economy, industry, foreign policy, education, and other topics. "These would be the issues out front in the country at the time," he recalls, "and the idea was to have students apply the understanding of democratic government that they'd gotten in the first half of the semester to these current issues."

The issues at the time when Ketcham began teaching were, of course, markedly different from the concerns when Maxwell was founded in the 1920s, and they have continued to change in the decades since. So, too, has Maxwell's approach to teaching citizenship evolved from the days of Cit 1 up through the development of the new Program in Citizenship and Civic Engagement, which will enroll its first students in 2013. That evolution is very much on Ketcham's mind these days, inspiring him to write a comprehensive history of citizenship education at Maxwell. Though the content of the courses — and even the interpretation of citizenship itself — have been reshaped, along with changes in university and public life, the commitment to educating responsible citizens has guided the School for nearly 90 years.

Training Citizens

Citizenship education was the core mission of the Maxwell School right from its founding, as envisioned by the Boston businessman and class of 1888 SU graduate George Maxwell. "It was George Maxwell's view that no person blessed with a college education in America should leave unmindful of the blessings that American citizenship bestowed on them, and moreover they should be good stewards of those blessings and work to share them with others," says Robert McClure, a professor of political science and a longtime teacher and champion of Maxwell's citizenship curriculum.

In laying out his proposal for a school of citizenship, George Maxwell wrote of his desire to "develop a body of leaders, especially trained in U.S. citizenship, who will go out through this country as educators, statesmen, financiers, business men, etc., to upbuild the foundations and bulwarks of citizenship intelligently and patriotically." Behind this idea was a sense of alarm about the state of citizenship in the United States at that time and what Maxwell described as "the general ignorance among the masses of our history, the principles of our government, its aims and safeguards." In the words of McClure, Maxwell felt "that the public had not understood, for example, what the first World War was all about, that they weren't doing very well at helping to improve the public life of the country after the war, and that the University had a responsibility to attend to this."

The Maxwell School was designed to teach citizenship for "both everyday citizens and public administrators," says Ketcham. "That led to the parallel development of courses in citizenship for all freshmen, and the graduate public administration program." The main vehicle for teaching everyday citizens was the Responsible Citizenship course that was a requirement for all freshmen in the College of Liberal Arts. It explored the obligations of citizenship by surveying the social sciences, giving special emphasis to the political process and to public administration. According to a 1941 Responsible Citizenship text, the course was "thoroughly embedded in a scientific understanding of politics and human society that saw government as a positive instrument for the 'constructive transformation and betterment of life.'"

Though course readings on political philosophy spanned historical texts from Plato to Thomas Jefferson and John Stuart Mill, Cit 1 was by its nature inevitably transformed by current events. Just as World War I had been an impetus for founding a school of citizenship in the first place, Cit 1 (and the upper-level electives that followed it) continued to respond to successive periods of social and political crisis.

"During World War II and the time leading up to it, the faculty's attention was more and more distracted toward the war and world affairs," Ketcham says. In fact, Maxwell's first dean, William Mosher, who oversaw Cit 1, was one of many academics who went to Washington to work in the administration.

Mosher died in 1945 — shortly after VE day — and Cit 1, Ketcham says, "no longer seemed to have the spirit and energy, and seemed kind of old fashioned." Society was on the cusp of a new era, and citizenship education with it.

"What Should Be" and "What Is"

In Ketcham's view, perhaps the deepest change in citizenship education from the 1950s onward was the movement away from teaching "what should be" toward teaching "what is." The original Responsible Citizenship course exemplified the former approach. The shapers of the curriculum prescribed the skills a young American citizen ought to possess as an incoming member of the body politic.

By the late 1950s the nation's mood had changed and the academy followed. The second Red Scare and the perceived excesses of McCarthyism made many Americans wary of monolithic political views and suspicious of any attempt to "train citizens," which some viewed as simple indoctrination. "Citizenship has always been a contentious term," says Robert McClure. "As the '50s unfolded it got a lot more contentious, as did the whole curriculum inside universities."

Maxwell's citizenship curriculum became part of this debate. Many preferred approaches that were strictly empirical and analytical, not prescriptive.

“Our belief was that citizens had to wrestle with questions together — questions that have no ready answer.”
— Robert McClure, Chapple Family Professor of Citizenship and Democracy Emeritus

"The old approach looked at the idea of democratic government and the way citizens should respond to it," says Ketcham. By contrast, the new approach emphasized "what the social sciences had learned about how the economy worked, how social groups acted, how political parties operated, and so on." A new-era citizenship course would transmit information the disciplines were collecting about the public life of the country and then apply that in an empirical way to, for instance, foreign policy. This approach was thought to be "much more useful for the students than the theory about citizenship," says Ketcham.

As the individual social science disciplines rose in prominence and University departments became more specialized, the meaning of citizenship itself began to fragment. Many called into question the very idea of special status for a citizenship course. In 1960 the faculty voted to disestablish the requirement that all freshmen take Cit 1.

From Citizenship to Public Affairs

No longer required for undergraduates, Maxwell's intro-to-citizenship course continued as an elective, offered via an undergraduate program known as Public Affairs, with Donald Meiklejohn as its director. Public Affairs carried on, to some degree, the approach of Cit 1 (and its upper-level companion, Cit 10). But the emphasis on empirical analysis continued to intensify, and the social sciences focused on scientific understanding of the political and social upheaval of the era. Universities, Ketcham writes, sought greater obvious relevancy to "critical moral and policy issues at home and abroad." Ultimately, much of what had been taught in Cit 1 was absorbed into an introductory public affairs course that "taught 'actors' how to analyze policy, formulate positions, and then become effective advocates," he says. This policy focus increased in 1976 when Bill Coplin became director of Public Affairs and soon introduced the undergraduate major in policy studies. The goal of engaging students with public issues was now pursued through an emphasis on job skills and community service; in fact, Coplin saw public affairs as essentially a pre-professional theme.

As it happens, there was room in the School for both Coplin's approach and the traditional style of teaching citizenship — with teams of professors from different disciplines leading debates on current issues. Ketcham, constitutional law professor Michael Sawyer, historian David Bennett, and others developed an upper-level course within Public Affairs, PAF 320, that was offered through the 1980s. It asked students to grapple with complex issues, organized around such themes as "Leadership," "The Professional in Society," "Religion and Politics," and "America in World Affairs."

Faculty members and students from across the University — from the humanities to public communication, management, education, and social work — explored a social problem from many angles, and then students worked in small groups to arrive at a position and compose a paper outlining it. For Ketcham, the course's interdisciplinary, deliberative approach modeled what citizens must do in a functioning democracy.

This perceived dichotomy — between an experiential and deliberative approach to citizenship — complicated life at Maxwell for the next two-plus decades. Over time, though, it would be resolved, with profound results.

The MAX Courses

PAF 320 served as a template for a significant expansion of the citizenship curriculum in the early 1990s: creation of the interdisciplinary MAX Courses. 

They were created and funded as part of a larger project, intended to enhance the undergraduate experience. An anonymous $4-million grant served to increase the number of small-size classes taught by senior faculty, expand community-service learning opportunities, and (among other initiatives) create two courses for freshmen, Critical Issues for the United States and Global Community, now known as the MAX Courses.

Robert McClure, who was then senior associate dean, helped secure the grant. As a champion of the citizenship curriculum who had taught in PAF 320, he also helped shape the new courses. They were designed, he says, to create a high-quality first-year experience, through a mixture of large plenary sessions, small discussion sections, and intensive writing.

“You’re sitting in this auditorium where these people sat 75 years ago and took this same course.”
— Kristi Andersen, Director, MAX Courses to new students in MAX 123

Underlying the MAX Courses was the idea that good citizenship entails finding a common understanding and perspective. Both the domestic and globally focused MAX Courses, which change topics yearly in response to current events and debates, were designed to be forums for "serious examination of issues that we collectively had to address," says McClure. "Our belief was that citizens had to wrestle with those questions together — questions that have no ready answer."

In that spirit, the MAX Courses aimed to foster dialogue among the students — asking them to consider the facts, listen respectfully to others, and articulate their own views. And that remains the core idea of these courses today, now directed by political scientist Kristi Andersen. "This is no course for the faint-hearted, the thin-skinned, or the closed-minded," notes the current introduction to MAX 123: Critical Issues for the United States. "Nor is it a course where all opinions are equal. Grasp of the facts, cogency of argument, and evidence of moral understanding make some opinions better than others. . . . We are looking for fact-based reason in service of democratic values."

This year's election season was a reminder of how rare this kind of respectful give-and-take on divisive issues has become — and how important is the task to expose students to a more productive form of public dialogue.

"From my perspective, citizenship needs to be taught more today than ever, because a free society cannot survive on individual rights alone," says McClure. "Citizenship stresses obligations and constraints. If those obligations and constraints are not taken seriously, no free people can govern themselves."

The Global Dimension

In earlier incarnations of Maxwell's citizenship curriculum, global issues came into play, especially through discussions of foreign policy. But these courses were about citizenship at the level of the nation or state, and focused primarily on domestic issues and American government in world affairs. By the '90s, many in Maxwell felt that modern citizenship had a distinct international dimension that ought to be reflected — hence, the introduction of the Global Community MAX Course alongside Critical Issues for the United States.

In this era of globalization, the notion of citizenship has new complexities. Margaret "Peg" Hermann, director of Maxwell's Moynihan Institute of Global Affairs, provides a few cases in point: workers in the U.S. who collectively send remittances to their hometowns in Mexico and are influencing governmental policy decisions from afar, for example, or Venezuelan immigrants to the U.S. who cast votes for or against Hugo Chávez in the recent election.

"So what are you a citizen of?" asks Hermann. "Family, local community, state, nation, the international system? Can you be a citizen of several countries? There are multiple ways of defining what a citizen is."

Because models of citizenship vary around the world, individuals sometimes find themselves juggling approaches that compete. Hermann gives the example of people working for international organizations who are exposed to diverse views of people and their governments. When they return home, their views of their own citizenship are complicated, maybe confused. "They have much more difficulty translating what they do, and the responsibilities they have, back to the countries and communities that they came from," she says.

The internationality of the student body opens up new conversations about political systems, social issues, and basic concepts of citizenship. Hermann cites a study that asked a cross-section of people in Phoenix and in Birmingham, England, about the meaning of democracy and citizenship, and found that the Americans tended to look at citizenship as a set of rights, while the English stressed a sense of responsibilities.

Questions about the meanings and implications of citizenship in the era of globalization are front and center in Global Communities and in programs such as the Moynihan Institute's Transnational NGO Initiative. The international dimension of citizenship was also a factor in the development of the new undergraduate major in citizenship and civic engagement.

"This program as it develops will look different from the programs of the '40s and '50s because we live in a different world," says historian Paul Hagenloh, who directs the new major. "The student body is different. Citizenship will need to be redefined as a global construction, and Maxwell can be and should be at the forefront of that redefinition."

Citizenship and Civic Engagement

With the creation of the new citizenship and civic engagement program, undergraduates will be able to major in citizenship and civic engagement in conjunction with a major in the social sciences, and learn not only how to discuss social issues but how to work toward solving them.

Given the opportunity to create a signature major for Maxwell, the faculty essentially tapped into the School's DNA as a school of citizenship. (For more on the major, see page 10.) The program builds its citizenship curriculum on the foundation of the MAX Courses, which were modeled on the public affairs citizenship course of the 1980s, which itself carried on the legacy of the Responsible Citizenship courses that were a cornerstone of Maxwell for the first four decades of the School. And it incorporates elements of action and case study that resolve the old deliberative vs. experiential dichotomy.

These historical connections are very clear to Kristi Andersen in her role as the director of the MAX Courses. These days, in her first lecture in MAX 123, Andersen tells the class about George Maxwell's original goal to "upbuild the foundations and bulwarks of citizenship," and she quotes Ralph Ketcham's description of Responsible Citizenship, which aimed to illuminate "social and political problems from a variety of angles." Says Andersen, "I read that to the kids and say, 'OK, you're sitting in this auditorium where these people sat 75 years ago and took this same course.'"

To Robert McClure, the Maxwell School in its new citizenship initiatives is staying true to its roots. "My assumption all along was the path we're now traveling is a path that George Maxwell would be pleased with and encourage," says McClure. "The original Responsible Citizenship and all the iterations that we've gone through continue to honor his legacy."

Ralph Ketcham, too, sees the continuity as well as the evolution of citizenship education, as chronicled in his recently completed history. In the article's closing sentences, he notes with satisfaction the creation of the new major. He writes, "Dean Mosher and Professor Brown would have been pleased."

Though all citizenship programs at Maxwell have a deep historical resonance and benefit from nearly 90 years of experience in teaching the responsibilities of citizenship, a new initiative like the citizenship and civic engagement major is ultimately not about paying tribute to the past. In each era, new social conditions and challenges emerge that require a renewal of the commitment to instill what George Maxwell termed "intelligent patriotism."

— Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers  

Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers is a contributor to National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and author of Rock Troubadours and other books on music.
This article appeared in the fall 2012 print edition of Maxwell Perspective; © 2012 Maxwell School of Syracuse University. To request a copy, e-mail

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