Colleges and universities across the country are turning their attention to expanding civic engagement opportunities for students. In part, this growing attention is a result of a renewed focus on the traditional mission of higher education to develop good citizens -- a mission with heightened importance in our current sociopolitical context. It is also a response to a resurgence of student interest in social activism and an expressed commitment among students to make a difference in the world. While these aims are commendable, I question whether those of us who work in higher education have developed the best approaches to achieve them.
An article in Inside Higher Ed described the growing emphasis on civic engagement in college curricula “in response to an erosion of public discourse.” The article notes that institutions are working to address what a 2012 Department of Education report termed a “civic recession” by involving students in service projects and experiential learning with the goals of enhancing civic discourse and political engagement and satisfying students’ desire to participate in service to “accomplish something in the world.”
As Alan Solomont of Tufts University states in the article, students need the structure colleges and universities provide, because without that they are uncertain about how to turn their activism into lasting change. I agree, and I’m concerned that we may be missing the opportunity to achieve our goals with students because we are not doing enough to intentionally design a structure that facilitates the desired outcome.
Today’s students will be better prepared and disposed to be good citizens who accomplish lasting change if they are more than involved in civic discourse on trending topics, do more than participate in politics and vote regularly, and experience more than discrete service projects or service learning courses. Those experiences, while important, can and should be framed by larger issues so they become more than self-fulfilling or exotic experiences of helping small numbers of people in need. Lasting change comes with a clear understanding and appreciation that such discrete activities exist in a social context that cannot be changed without systemic reform. We have great potential to make a difference precisely because students are eager to explore their concerns, often through social media, and to express their hopes and expectations through campus demonstrations, sit-ins and petitions. Many are actively engaged.
Yet we know that our current efforts are not working as well as we had hoped. Campus projects to encourage student voting have not succeeded in getting students who turn out in large numbers for presidential elections to vote in the off years, although the issues that drive them to the polls aren’t solved through voting for a single political leader in one election. And students return from service-learning trips and activities elated by the adventure, feeling as if they’ve made a difference and connected with people very different from themselves, but often without the tools to contextualize their experience in the framework of global problems or to stimulate them to continue their deep engagement as citizens.
What can we do to enhance the long-term impact of college and university-sponsored civic engagement activities? We can start by asking, “What for?” and “What are we doing to point intentionally toward the purpose implied in that first question?” If we are clear about the purpose and context for these efforts and systemic in our framing and design, our students are far more likely to develop lifelong civic responsibility for bringing about lasting, systemic change.
Identify the fundamental issue. We should encourage the explicit design of civic engagement projects, whether local or global, around major issues. Such design entails framing activities not simply as work in a food pantry but also as work to diminish food insecurity and malnutrition, not simply as helping build schools but also as addressing the issue of educational inequities, not simply as establishing a pro bono community clinic but also as providing equitable access to health care. In short, we have to broaden the focus from applying learning in the real world and what the student gains in this hands-on process to include an explicit focus on the larger societal problem the student is working to solve.
Understand the issue in its broader context. We will not successfully resolve hunger with a food drive or a service-learning trip, because hunger is a complex problem that is systemically entwined with other social and economic issues. To be effective in tackling societal issues, we have to understand them deeply and broadly enough to know what needs to change. Colleges and university are well positioned to teach students about issues like hunger as enduring, complex systemic problems. Institutions that already take that approach know that the academic component of civic engagement activities is central to making sure these activities are understood as more than discrete projects. Students should learn about the issue and the community in depth before engaging in service projects so they are not just there as helpers or partners but can also envision their work as an effort to address a larger problem and appreciate their potential efficacy in addressing it.
A postexperience follow-up that circles back to the pre-experience academic study is also important in linking the civic engagement activity to the larger problem, why it is so entrenched and how to address it systemically. Perhaps ideally, students could begin to study major local and global problems in depth in their first year through a problem-themed general education program that would lay the groundwork for a deeper and broader understanding of civic engagement work from the start of their undergraduate experience.
Support faculty work across disciplines. As the notion of a problem-themed general education program suggests, the issues we are trying to address through civic engagement projects are complex and nuanced and cannot be fully understood or effectively tackled from any single disciplinary perspective. For example, environmental sustainability is best considered from the multifaceted perspectives of science, law, business, sociology, communications and engineering, to name a few key disciplines. To help our students frame their activity, we must support our faculty’s interdisciplinary teaching and scholarship and ensure that our institutions value this work in personnel decisions like reappointment, promotion and tenure.
Develop leaders. An important component of solving complex problems is leadership. If we want students to develop a civic engagement stance that has an impact on major problems, we must also foster their acquisition of tools and dispositions to make a difference with the knowledge and experience they have gained through civic engagement activities. We should guide them to discover their own leadership skills, to explore ethical and servant leadership concepts (leading with a singular focus on empowering others and addressing others’ needs), and to understand the power of quiet leaders, those without formal leadership positions who lead by example in their daily actions and decisions. Students must develop a personal sense of leadership and responsibility to be leaders in their own lives. At my institution, Widener University, the Oskin Leadership Institute offers all students a leadership certificate and an interdisciplinary leadership minor. Connecting service activities with leadership development is important to developing a lifelong commitment to civic engagement.
Strive for lifetime impact. The ultimate goal should be that our students will be poised for a lifetime of engagement in civic participation to solve local and global problems. Regardless of their career paths, students who have the tools to lead and who have learned to understand and think about their civic engagement activities in the framework of larger problems -- who understand what those activities are for beyond their own discrete experience -- will be better able to achieve the outcomes we all hope for: accomplishing something significant by making a difference in the world.
Julie E. Wollman is president of Widener University.
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