Diversity and Democracy

Civic Identity: Locating Self in Community

Before being nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature and lauded for his tireless work for peace, Nikos Kazantzakis was a young student struggling with his identity. Kazantzakis was an ethnic minority in his own land, the child of a military father and an intellectual and musical mother. As a Cretan, he identified with the concepts of being colonized, of existing in exile, of living in constant diaspora. He struggled with multiple issues, wondering which political system deserved his allegiance, how he could reconcile the struggle for human rights with injustices perpetrated at the direction of government, and how he could explore and commit himself to one religious tradition. He struggled with issues of sexuality and relationships. But his two largest struggles were these: how to discover a passionate purpose and role in life, and how to reconcile the multiple aspects of his own identity into a harmonious whole.

Kazantzakis searched for the answers to these questions in many places. One summer he went to work in his uncle’s lignite mine. While there, he encountered the limitations of poverty, the stifling role gender identity played in the island communities, and a sense of both isolation and possibility. He worked, had new and unforeseen experiences, and reflected on his life and its meaning. Finally, he discovered a reconciling purpose, a sense of identity resolution. “I too,” he writes, “can be a warrior, only my soldiers will be the twenty-six letters of the alphabet!” (The Saviors of God 1969).

Inspired by this insight, Kazantzakis wrote passionately about ethnic strife in his homeland and worked to create a rebirth of democracy in Crete, all while crafting several beloved novels, including The Fratricides, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Zorba the Greek. Once a college student in search of himself, Kazantzakis became one of the leading authors and activists of the twentieth century. He had not just discovered a career. He had discovered a larger role in the world.

Discovering Civic Identity

Nikos Kazantzakis claimed his identity as an activist and saw writing as a means to enable that identity. He had learned that not claiming that identity would have been tantamount to betraying himself. He had discovered what Katie Cannon, author of Black Womanist Ethics, calls us all to discover: how to discern the moral and civic obligations of our time and find a way to act on those obligations (1988). Cannon suggests that such action is our ethical obligation. She sees the identity affirmation that develops through action as larger than the work through which we enact it.

Through initiatives like American Commitments, Shared Futures, Greater Expectations, Core Commitments, and Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP), AAC&U has called us to understand the nature of civic identity. These initiatives position civic identity as an identity status in its own right—one that can become as integral to individual identity as race, ethnicity, gender, nationality, or any other deeply claimed aspect of self. We at AAC&U have strongly asserted that the development of an ethical civic identity should be one of the outcomes of a liberal education.

Our emphasis has not been misplaced. As Colby and Damon have told us, the college years represent a key opportunity for the development of civic identity, particularly for traditionally aged 18- to 22-year-old students (1992). During childhood, an outside authority defines the moral domain, with adults mediating between what is right and wrong. The adolescent then encounters multiple perspectives and begins to develop a sense of a moral compass. The college student, armed with increased cognitive complexity, is potentially able to develop what James Rest has called the “four components of moral identity”: moral sensitivity, judgment, motivation, and character (1994). This richer understanding should lead to an adulthood in which the individual comes to see moral action as an integral part of who he or she is, and understands that to not act morally is to betray the self.

Thus college can be a crucial shaping environment for the development of moral identity and civic identity—if educational opportunities deliberatively engage the student in accordance with his or her developmental readiness. We must be mindful of this need as we work to create more purposeful, deliberate, and connected educational experiences for our students.

Essential Characteristics of Civic Identity

If civic identity is a major identity status, it must have some essential characteristics:

1) Civic identity does not develop in isolation. It develops over time through engagement with others who bring a wide variety of interpretations, life experiences, and characteristics to any discussion of moral dilemmas. It develops in the context of engaging the real social, political, and economic structures within any given society or culture. Thus the development of civic identity in our students is truly community work.

2) Civic identity is not the same as, but is deeply connected to, complex intellectual and ethical development. While complex thought does not guarantee positive moral action, moral discernment is an act of cognitive complexity. Civic actions, like moral actions, arise in the face of complex alternatives. Thus the work of helping students become more intellectually complex expands their capacity to think and act as citizens.

3) Civic identity is a holistic practice. It requires an integration of critical thinking and the capacity for empathy. It challenges us to identify with others who may be significantly different from ourselves while acting consistently in the face of unexpected circumstances. By developing an active, integrated civic identity, individuals begin to find wholeness and psychological balance within themselves and with others in the world.

4) Civic identity becomes a deliberately chosen and repeatedly enacted aspect of the self. Like any other identity status, civic identity requires active reflection, experimentation, and what Dewey called “moral rehearsal” (Fesmire 2003). Rehearsal for civic engagement requires multiple experiences and opportunities for learning. These experiences should include time to reflect with others, active discussion about choices and their possible consequences, and imaginative exercises that help students commit to a better and more just society.

Individuals with a mature sense of civic identity are fully engaged, fully human citizens of their communities. They seek knowledge of both historical and contemporary conditions. They apply this knowledge using the skills and competencies they have developed, working independently and interdependently on whatever challenges they face. They approach these challenges with a sense of discernment, responsibility, and justice seeking. They are both idealistic and realistic, patient and persistent, committed to thoughtful engagement and aware that others may engage differently. They see their role in life as contributing to the long-term greater good. And perhaps most importantly, they have the courage to act.

Our Unfinished Work

Recent data collected as part of AAC&U’s Core Commitments initiative indicate that colleges and universities endorse the elements of what I have described above. We want our students to develop what we at AAC&U have called “civic identity,” and we believe that this development should be an essential outcome of a liberal education. Yet the data also reveals a gap between the ideal and the real: educators want to foster civic growth, but we aren’t necessarily successful in doing so. If we are truly committed to fostering civic identity in our students, we must ask ourselves some difficult questions about how we approach the educational enterprise. We cannot help students become integrated and whole if our curricula, campus activities, and civic programs remain unconnected, unstructured, and unexamined.

Nevertheless, we are not without frameworks for fostering civic growth, and AAC&U laid out some of these in its recent report, College Learning for the New Global Century. Students who develop knowledge of history, teamwork and problem-solving skills, civic knowledge and engagement, intercultural knowledge and competence, ethical reasoning and action, and the ability to synthesize and act purposefully are well on their way toward developing civic identity. There are multiple steps colleges and universities can take to foster this growth. Students need to live and study in environments that help them engage “the big questions” and explore their own purpose and identity. Students need to recognize how their course of study connects them to the civic and cultural life around them. Students need to see that we are all members of one community and that our individual work is interconnected with the work of others. And students need to witness the academy’s ongoing commitment to creating a more just society.

This issue of Diversity & Democracy calls us to contemplate community’s role in the task of educating students to find their civic selves. As Kazantzakis wrote to a dear “companion in life”: “If you leave me to myself alone, I shall try to succeed alone. But if we try it together, the task will not be easier, but it will be deeper and richer” (H. Kazantzakis 1989). As educators, we should follow Kazantzakis’s lead to richer collaborations and deeper learning experiences, for our students, ourselves, and our world.


Association of American Colleges and Universities. 2007. College learning for the new global century. Washington, DC.

Cannon, K. G. 1988. Black womanist ethics. Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press.

Colby, A., and W. Damon. 1992. Some do care: Contemporary lives of moral commitment. New York: The Free Press.

Fesmire, S. 2003. John Dewey and the moral imagination. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Kazantzakis, H. 1989. Nikos Kazantzakis: A biography. Simon and Schuster.

Kazantzakis, N. 1969. The fratricides. New York: Simon and Schuster.

—. 1998. The last temptation of Christ. New York: Simon and Schuster.

—. 1969. The saviors of God. New York: Simon and Schuster.

—. 1971. Zorba the Greek. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Rest, J. and D. Narvaez. 1994. Moral development in the professions. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Editor’s note: Lee Knefelkamp spoke about civic identity at AAC&U’s October 2007 meeting, “Civic Learning at the Intersections.” To download a podcast of her speech, visit www.aacu.org/Podcast/civic07_podcasts.cfm.                          

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