More than half of 14,000 college seniors failed a civic literacy exam when they were tested five years ago. Similar depressing statistics and concerns about the nation’s civic health prompted the U.S. Department of Education in 2010 to invite the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the Global Perspective Institute to prepare a report on the state of civic learning and democratic engagement in the country and prepare a road map for the future.
That report, "A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future,"  prepared by the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, is being released today and makes the case for an elevated level of civic knowledge and democratic engagement among college students. As part of this push to make democratic engagement a national goal, the U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and U.S. Under Secretary of Education Martha Kanter will join other Obama administration officials and higher education luminaries at the White House today to make the case that an engaged citizenry will bolster the country’s democracy and economy.
The report lays out what it calls a new vision for civic learning: familiarity with democratic principles and political structures, knowledge of political systems, cultures and religions in the United States and other parts of the world. "Knowledge is important, but it is equally important to work on public problems that help democracy,” said Carol Schneider, the AAC&U president, who was one of 11 members on the national task force that helped shaped the report. It calls on colleges and universities to build partnerships with nonprofits, governmental agencies, and business. "...civic learning needs to be an integral component of every level of education, from grammar school through graduate school, across all fields of study," the report concludes.
Schneider pointed to the post-World War II era in the United States, when President Truman established a commission that eventually mapped out higher education for decades to come, including the establishment of the country’s community college system.
“The commission ended its first volume with the very clarion call that 'A Crucible Moment' picks up nearly seven decades later: ‘The first and most essential charge upon higher education is that at all levels and in all its fields of specialization, it shall be the carrier of democratic values, ideals, and process,’ ” the report states.
Some of what is being suggested in the report is already happening at a few higher education institutions around the country, the report states. Tulane University, where students need to complete two public service courses to graduate, is one example. The University of Alabama at Birmingham, where a capstone course in every major provides an opportunity to students to apply classroom learning to a real-life situation, is another. These two examples mirror one of the main ideas of the report that civic inquiry be made central to the major or the field of study.
But how is this framework for civic learning and democratic engagement going to come about?
Some of the interest may be evident at today’s White House gathering, where about 80 institutions, including colleges, civic-minded nonprofits and higher education associations will make commitments to civic learning. “They are pledging to take civic learning to another level, to make it pervasive and not occasional,” Schneider said.
The American Association of Community Colleges plans to offer free online workshop resources on civic engagement in higher education this year. The American Democracy Project plans to launch a civic health initiative focused on campus and community health.
“We are sending out the message that democracy matters and it is dangerous to keep democracy on auto-pilot,” Schneider said. This line of thinking may also challenge some of the direction taken by policy leaders in recent years where there has been “an emphasis on the global economy but not on global democracy,” she said.
Thomas Ehrlich, a visiting professor of education at Stanford University, said that too often students learn about democracy and government, but do not know how to be active participants. “I’m really glad to see that the task force is focusing on that aspect,” said Ehrlich, a former president of Indiana University and former dean of the Stanford Law School. He said learning how to be an effective and engaged citizen and learning how to be a good CEO could go hand in hand.
One way to make the initiative more meaningful, said Susan Herbst, president of the University of Connecticut, is to bring down class size, so that students learn how to debate with each other. “I recommend, in addition to the excellent ideas in this report, that every campus and professor consider how they can teach argumentation in their courses. If students do not learn this in college, they will not be able to improve their communities as working, voting adults,” she said. Negotiation and compromise are important tools in the democratic process, she said. “Along with teaching argument and civility, we in higher education will need to teach compromise. If we don’t, we will not change political life at all, or move the nation forward for its citizens, who so desperately need strong, thoughtful leadership,” Herbst said.
Catie Collins, a senior at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, who will be at the White House gathering today, said civic engagement is missing from the lives of many students. Collins, who is the student government president at the university, said such engagement "can be a great tool for students to get to know the world around them."