The Teagle Foundation: Cultivating Civic Leaders Through Education Excellence

Philanthropy Roundtable recently sat down with Tamara Mann Tweel, Ph.D., program director for Civic Initiatives at The Teagle Foundation. The foundation’s mission is to support educational excellence through exposure to liberal arts and civics education. This method of learning develops students’ critical thinking skills so they may communicate with civility and clarity based on the evidence. The foundation focuses on these efforts by investing in the roles education leaders and faculty play in securing civics excellence in America’s education system.

Q. What inspired The Teagle Foundation to make civics an investment priority?

The mission of The Teagle Foundation is “to support and strengthen liberal arts education, which we see as fundamental to meaningful work, effective citizenship and a fulfilling life.” For this reason, the foundation has long been invested in forms of civic education. In 2019, we decided to make this investment more explicit. We opened a call for proposals designed to partner with higher education institutions offering bold and coherent initiatives that endow students with the content, skills and sensibility to participate in a political system designed for self-governance. The foundation is especially concerned with giving students comprehensive civic knowledge through teaching, reading, debate and discussion centered in the curriculum.

Q. What does The Teagle Foundation look for in a civics program or initiative? Is there an approach your team has noticed is particularly effective in supporting civics education?

Through this initiative, the foundation seeks ambitious projects that confront gaps in undergraduates’ civic knowledge and prepare them for the intellectual demands of democratic participation. Successful proposals promote learning about the formation of the American republic, the crafting of its Constitution, the history of contention over the interpretation of the Constitution, the development of representative political structures and the principles of democracy.

Civic education is strongest when it is not treated as a theoretical subject but when it becomes part of the lived experience of students and links their work across disciplines. For this reason, most of our grants go to institutions that give students an opportunity to connect big questions in areas like governance, history and law to the local history and current conditions of the community outside the campus gates. For example, the foundation recently gave a grant to the new Moynihan Center at City College of the City University of New York to create the New York City Leaders Fellowship, which gives a select group of students a serious academic study in core texts with the hands-on experience they will need to become the next generation of civic leaders in New York City.

Q. Can you share your and the foundation’s strategy for strengthening civics knowledge, not just with students, but professionals and faith leaders?

Our foundation invests heavily in faculty. In addition to our grants, we run professional development programs to ensure educators who teach in our Cornerstone: Learning for Living and Knowledge for Freedom initiatives are equipped to teach with primary sources. In addition to working with faculty, we help colleges and universities prioritize civic knowledge in their institutions. We look for schools with excellent faculty invested in making civic knowledge a centerpiece of general education.

Q. One of the programs you and the foundation are strong supporters of is the Freedom and Citizenship Program at Columbia University. Tell us more about their work and impact.

Columbia University’s “Freedom and Citizenship” program opened in 2009 with 15 students taught by professor Roosevelt Montás, then director of Columbia’s Center for the Core Curriculum. The program aimed to introduce dedicated high school students to college-level work in the humanities and prepare them for lives as informed, responsible citizens. Freedom and Citizenship is now a rapidly expanding national model called  Knowledge for Freedom (KFF), which will serve more than 600 students on 28 campuses this summer. 

KFF programs invite underserved high school students to study humanity’s deepest questions about leading lives of purpose and civic responsibility. Between the junior and senior years of high school, KFF students spend a few weeks in residence on a college campus, where they experience the intensity of a seminar-sized discussion taught by college professors focused on major works of philosophy and literature. Over the following year, while applying to college, the students engage in civic initiatives inspired by the recognition that their lives are interconnected with the lives of others.

KFF programs, as proven by the Columbia University model dramatically improve college readiness, admission prospects and college graduation. They also build interest in humanistic writing and issues, as well as habits of civic efficacy that persist during and after college.

To learn more about The Teagle Foundation and the work it supports, click here.

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