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Democracy's Future: Civic Engagement and Structural Reform

It's the first day of AAC&U's Annual Meeting and I'm already bleary-eyed. Yesterday afternoon I flew into Washington from Utah, registered for the conference, and crashed in my room.

It wasn't so much the travel that has caused me to be so tired this morning, but the "goodie" I received in my registration packet. I'm referring to A Crucible Moment: College Learning & Democracy's Future, by the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement. This call to action kept me up half the night reading and thinking about its message. And now that I just finished attending the opening plenary session, I want to get my thoughts down before they dissipate with the activities of the day ahead.

There is simply no better time than the present for a national call for elementary, secondary, and higher educators to work together to renew our commitment to democratic engagement. As Carol Geary Schneider, president of AAC&U, mentioned in her opening remarks, the scope and severity of the challenges the United States and the global community face are truly daunting.

If I may elaborate just on the American situation: our over-leveraged economy seems incapable of returning to the levels of growth and employment we have come to expect in the post-World War II era; we appear to be running up against resource scarcities and environmental challenges at every turn; economic inequality has reached a level of toxicity not seen in the United States since before the Great Depression; our fellow Americans seem more enthused by their roles as consumers than their responsibilities as citizens; we have engaged in an extremely unilateral and militarized foreign policy that magnifies rather than diminishes national security problems; and our national institutions are held in varying degrees of disregard by the people they purport to serve.

I welcome AAC&U's work with a variety of stakeholders and interested groups to produce the Crucible Moment report. It calls, in the words of Schneider, for educators to "vigorously, actively, and noisily reclaim our civic missions" in higher education. Institutions of higher learning can and should help to build democratic capital and encourage our students to engage in civic learning, practice the kinds of vigorous yet respectful dialogue so vital to democracy, and work to address the needs of the local, national, and global communities to which they belong. Indeed, as the list of concurrent sessions for this conference shows, many colleges and universities are already engaged in this vital work.

A Crucible Moment resonates with me as a classroom teacher. Over the years, some students in my courses have worked on political campaigns, advocated for a diverse range of interest groups, and served in humanitarian organizations to build houses, stock food pantries, and help refugees. They have written about how their work ties to the broad principles and concepts I introduce in my politics courses. At my institution, I have worked to promote service-learning and civic engagement in our mission, our learning outcomes, and our practices.

In other words, I'm on board with the National Task Force's call to action, as are most of my colleagues on the faculty and staff of Salt Lake Community College. And yet (oh no, here it comes), I can't help thinking that we are missing a vital piece of the picture—namely, the structures in which we and our students operate. If we don't address the anti-democratic organization of—and practices within—our political, educational, and economic institutions, our work is incomplete.

I think of this as analogous to A Crucible Moment's recommendation for higher education to move from partial to pervasive integration of civic learning and democratic engagement. Graduating classes of students who are civically engaged is only a partial success, in my opinion, and will not be complete until those very students work with us to transform the institutions that produce the social and economic ills that plague us.

Let's start with our own institutions. Are they as democratic as they could be? My son, who is fourteen, attends a school where new teachers go through a probationary period after which the students are given a great deal of influence on whether or not the new teacher is permitted to remain on the staff. The students also handle all disciplinary problems via a deliberative body. What happens in the future when he attends my own institution, where faculty and (especially) students have limited power? What happens when he becomes employed in one of the vast majority of corporations where distant CEOs and shareholders make all the important decisions? Despite what he might learn about democracy from a truly liberal education, I fear that the real lesson he will learn over time is that democracy is an "ideal form" that isn't actually practiced in the settings that matter.

Let's look also at our broader political and economic systems. The economic troubles we are currently facing were by and large not caused by a lack of civic engagement. Plenty of individuals and organized groups mobilized over the years to oppose the deregulation of the financial industry, to challenge the war-making, to rebut the alleged need to reduce taxes on the wealthy. All of those efforts were for naught, however, because the institutional structures and processes in place in our republic are geared to discount the collective voices of ordinary people in favor of large economic interests.

Our graduates should understand and be engaged to remedy the institutions and practices that produce the social ills that we are currently asking them to address in their service-learning experiences. I'm saying that poverty, injustice, environmental damage, and poor health are directly related to—among other sources—the way we finance our elections, the way that our news organizations are owned and operated, the way that our legal system treats corporations as people with nearly all the rights and few of the responsibilities of actual people, the way the US Senate remains an incredibly un-democratic legislative body, the way we treat healthcare as a product to be purchased on the open market rather than a right. The list could go on.

In short, we want our students to be civically minded, to be practiced in the art of working collaboratively and constructively with a diverse set of colleagues, and to be innovative as they tackle social problems. The Task Force's call to action does that, and I am so grateful for it. But don't we also want our students to get to the roots of those social problems? If not, we risk training them to be permanent medics, patching wounds in a war that never ends.

David Hubert is a professor of Political Science and ePortfolio Director at Salt Lake Community College