Civic Learning

A growing number of colleges and universities are emphasizing civic engagement in their curriculum -- a move institutions say is in response to an erosion of public discourse.

May 10, 2016

Starting this fall, California State University at Los Angeles students must take two courses in civic learning as part of their general education requirements.

A combination of workshops, service learning and problem-solving assignments, the courses are designed, the university said, to encourage students to use what they’ve learned at Cal State to create solutions to real-world issues by working with local nonprofit organizations. Faculty will develop assignments and projects using an online module created by the Association of College and University Educators.

When the requirement kicks in next year, the university will join a quickly growing number of institutions emphasizing civic engagement in their curricula.

“There is this whole discussion of a perceived decline in civic participation in our society,” Michael Willard, faculty director for the university’s Office of Service Learning, said. “What’s happening across higher education is a recognition that we need to fulfill our historic mission of preparing students to be citizens through new forms of engagement in civil society. That returns to the foundational purpose of higher education. Education has more value in addition to training students for a profession. A student should leave the university with the understanding that they can use the knowledge and skills of their degree for a career and for the public good. Those things are not mutually exclusive.”

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Education released a report -- created by the Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement National Task Force, the Global Perspective Institute and the Association of American Colleges and Universities -- that urged colleges to make civic learning and democratic engagement “an animating national priority” in order to help the country emerge from what it called a “civic recession.”

Since the report’s release, dozens of colleges and organizations have created new initiatives related to civic engagement. Wake Forest University created a task force to “identify areas of institutional strength and weakness across civic ethos, literacy, inquiry and action.” Keene State College used the report to train student leaders in various campus groups. In 2014, the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education added “preparing citizens” to the seven expected key outcomes for all graduates of the state’s 29 public campuses.

Even before the report’s release, a handful of colleges were already placing a greater emphasis on civic learning.

In 2007, Duke University announced that it was launching a $30 million project that would provide financial support to any undergraduates who wanted to design and carry out service projects around the world. So far more than 2,800 Duke students have participated in the program, which covers both travel and living expenses. “Education finally isn’t about doing homework -- it’s about actively desiring to use your personal knowledge to accomplish something in the world,” Richard Brodhead, Duke’s president, said at the time.

Cornell launched a similarly civic-minded initiative in 2012, called Engaged Cornell. The $150 million project is expected to develop “hundreds of new community-university partnerships around the world” and provide every Cornell student with an opportunity for what it calls “engaged learning.” Later that year, Brown University launched an initiative aimed at providing internships and experiential learning opportunities focused on civic engagement.

More than a decade ago, Tufts created its College of Citizenship and Public Service, now called the College of Civic Life. It does not award degrees, but partners with the university’s other colleges to promote service learning across campus and research political engagement.

Last month, the college received a $15 million gift from philanthropist and entrepreneur Jonathan Tisch. The gift will be used to create endowed professorships in civic studies, support ongoing research on youth voting and political engagement, and help fund service learning and leadership programs. “The gift comes at a time when many would say civic and political discourse in the United States is in need of repair,” the university said when announcing the donation.

The increasing focus on civic learning comes at a time when students are also demonstrating a renewed interest in activism and political engagement.

About 9 percent of freshmen responding to this year’s American Freshman Survey said they have a “very good chance” of participating in student protests while in college, an increase of 2.9 percentage points from last year’s survey. The finding is among several from this year’s survey that the researchers say point to the highest level of civic engagement in the study’s 50-year history.

The American Freshman Survey collected responses from more than 141,000 first-year students during their first few weeks of college. Black students saw the largest increase in planned activism. Last year, 10.5 percent of black students said they expected to participate in student protests and demonstrations during college. This year, 16 percent of black students said they plan on protesting. Black students were more than twice as likely to say they would join campus protests than white students, with 7.1 percent of white students reporting that there was a very good chance they would participate in student demonstrations.

The interest in civic and political engagement is seen outside of campus demonstrations, as well, the survey found. Nearly 40 percent of students said that becoming a community leader is a “very important” or “essential” life objective for them. About 60 percent of incoming freshmen rated improving their understanding of other countries and cultures as just as important. Both were all-time highs for the categories.

Nearly 60 percent of incoming freshmen said there was a “very good” chance that they would vote in a local, state or national election while in college. Last year, just over half of students said they planned on voting.

“I think it is reflective of students wanting to do things to repair and resolve problems they see in the world,” Alan Solomont, dean of Tufts’ College of Civic Life, said. “We are seeing an uptick in campus activism and seeing an arousal of political interest among young people and that’s a really good thing. At the same time, voting by young people in 2014 was at a historic low. I think one of the things that’s driving colleges right now is an interest in educating students and helping them acquire the skills that are needed to make their activism effective.”

Solomont said he is supportive of the recent burst of campus activism. A student activist himself in the 1960s, he said he understands the urgency and passion shown by many campus protesters. But sometimes young activists, he said, are unsure how to turn their activism into lasting change.

“Helping students with that is something that guides us in terms of our educational mission,” Solomont, who is also a former U.S. ambassador to Spain, said. “People have to learn how to participate in democracy, how to be effective agents of change, how to deliberate across differences and engage and collaborate in social movements. These aren’t things most people are just born with.”


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