Liberal arts and the ideal citizen


In the final Madison Vision Series event of the semester, Dr. Danielle S. Allen addressed the question, “What does it take to be an ideal citizen in our contemporary world and how do we prepare people for this?” In her presentation, titled “Participatory Readiness: On the Liberal Arts and the Ethics of Citizenship,” she explored and defended civil society’s need for people who are well-versed in the humanities in order to make sense of politics, our communities and the world.  

“The Declaration of Independence is telling us we need our liberal arts education in order to do our job as democratic citizens,” Allen said. She continued on to outline how the key skills of diagnosis, prescription and justification point to a need for a background in the liberal arts — diagnosis in recalling the events and patterns of the past and what these entail; prescription in deciding what action to take; and justification in convincing others of the need for action.

Allen then discussed three societal roles: the civically engaged citizen, a nonpartisan deliberator, who seeks consensus; the activist, who takes a stand, has a vision, morally reasons and can shift how people think; and the politician, who must play both roles with a knowledge of the institution and policy. “The ideal citizen needs all of these things,” Allen asserted.

Debating the notion of the ideal citizen poses the question of how we, as a nation, can prepare citizens. Allen cited the Commission of Humanities and Social Sciences’ report “The Heart of the Matter,” highlighting the correlation between college education and political activity.

Through the studies of history, philosophy, literature, political science and other disciplines, Allen asserts we begin to understand people and how they think. “When we want to understand the problems we are wrestling with, what we are really confronted with is the case — the articulations that individuals make about what matters to them … All the language, talk and argument around us are skills that are honed only in the humanities and humanistic social sciences.”

The next Madison Vision Series presentation features Margaret Hu, assistant professor of law at Washington and Lee University, presenting Feb. 4 from 3:30 to 5 p.m. at the Madison Union Ballroom.

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Published: Monday, November 23, 2015

Last Updated: Wednesday, November 1, 2023

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