Searching for Civics

January 26, 2012

WASHINGTON – Earlier this month, the Association of American Colleges and Universities released a report prepared by a national task force that made the case for elevated civic learning in higher education. That theme continued Wednesday, at the annual meeting of the AACU, where educators talked about how to carry out these ideas.

Wednesday’s discussions centered around seeking examples and promising practices of civic learning. Such learning cannot be episodic, occasional, or celebratory, speakers said. In a discussion about “civic inquiry and problem solving across general education and the major,” Gail Robinson, director of service learning at the American Association of Community Colleges, said that students should be made part of the decision-making process when it comes to incorporating civic learning in college courses. One obvious way to attract students, she said, could be if they felt that they were more competitive in the job market because they were engaged in questions of civic importance. “If they see it is a plus for them, that could be one way of making it work,” she said.

Another idea: build curricular pathways around the idea of civic learning and inquiry. Paul Schadewald, associate director at the Civic Engagement Center at Macalester College, who was also part of the discussion, pointed out how students at Macalester could specialize in human rights and humanitarianism, community and global health, urban studies, and international development. He said that these areas of concentrations give students an opportunity to engage in interdisciplinary studies. "I think of it as a kind of wooing process, built around student interest,” Schadewald said.

Amy Koritz, director at the Center for Civic Engagement, at Drew University, echoed similar ideas and used the example of Imagining America – a consortium of colleges and universities that promotes scholarly and creative work in humanities, arts and design that contributes to the public good – to talk about collaborative civic work between institutions. One fruitful direction at Drew, she said, was the creation of hybrid programs that deployed the curriculum of the college and the co-curriculum of student affairs and campus life.

But these ideas could work only if students begin to see civic engagement as added value, said Larry Braskamp, president of the Global Perspective Institute, Inc., which helped prepare the report by the national task force. “That is what we need to emphasize. If students feel there is a value to be able to working with people from different backgrounds or by solving real-life problems, it will help. That’s our challenge. We have to look at the current environment and figure out what the value addition is going to be,” he said. What’s being proposed is a different kind of community culture and for that to take root, faculty and university leaders have to set an example, he said. “We are on the margins at this point, and we have to be realistic about what students want and what their parents want. We are all seeking answers,” he said.

Some answers and examples came from Scott S. Cowen, president of Tulane University, who was the keynote luncheon speaker Wednesday and talked about reimagining the role of colleges and universities in society. He said civic learning has been a stepchild to research and learning, and that kind of thinking has to change.

It might already be happening at Tulane, which now offers 320 service learning courses -- a sixfold increase from 2005, when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and closed down the university for an entire semester. “We made a decision in 2006…to make sure that civic engagement was on the same pedestal as research and learning and that they were interconnected,” Cowen said.

 

 

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