The Case for Civic Learning in the Humanities at Community Colleges

The principles that led to the establishment of community colleges in the American higher education system were based on the ideologies of democracy and steeped in the early republican creed of equal opportunity. President Truman’s Commission on Higher Education report in 1947 conceived the idea of community colleges as a system for providing more access to educational opportunities in local communities across the country and as a principal method for fostering a stronger nation of prosperous and engaged citizens (Truman Commission 1947). The influence of these founding principles has often resulted in their endearing designation as democracy’s colleges. Given these foundational ties to democracy and citizenship, it makes sense that community colleges should serve as leaders in civic learning and assessment. Community colleges and the influence they hold in local, regional, and even national communities are in many ways best situated for the work of democracy.

Challenges to the Civic Role of Community Colleges

The charge of serving as civic learning and assessment leaders is not without challenges. A quick look into the recent plight of community colleges will hastily reveal that they face difficult and often unique operational challenges. Examples include maintaining sustainable funding while continuing to adhere to the mission of affordability or maintaining open enrollment in an environment keen on performance-based funding. Then there is the expectation by state legislatures and public stakeholders to develop a comprehensive but flexible curriculum to meet rapidly changing local and regional workforce needs. Administrators and faculty at community colleges feel the consequences of constantly changing public demands. Efforts to address these challenges often result in the rapid initiative implementation approach to problem solving: solving a problem by doing more with less. This tactic is, in some part, a direct result of the foundational mission of the community college to be the best at meeting rapidly changing student, workforce, and public needs in the communities they serve. The consequence, however, is sometimes the echoing moans from faculty and administrators using the catchphrase “initiative fatigue.” Prioritization is a difficult task for institutions dedicated to the democratizing notion of being all things to all people.

Just as recent national Gallup polls suggest low public confidence in democratic and political institutions like Congress and the Supreme Court, so too have the purpose and benefits of higher education come under scrutiny (Gallup 2018). From the workforce development perspective at community colleges, the trend toward a concentrated focus on the skills-to-employment mindset has in some cases meant inattention to the civic role these colleges also fulfill. If America’s economic health may partly rest on how well community colleges embrace the skills-to-jobs mentality for the workforce, what responsibility for America’s democratic health do community colleges still hold for the citizenry?

Perhaps no other traditional area of study has encountered a tougher existential challenge than the humanities. One does not have to browse long to find almost daily published examples of articles discussing the inadequacy of liberal arts training or the irrelevance of humanities majors like history, English literature, philosophy, or religion. Responses to these criticisms are generally defensive and often justify their existence with rhetoric expressing the intrinsic value of the humanities.

The Value of the Humanities
The humanities have traditionally held a peculiar place at the community college. Balancing the community college’s dual functions of academic transfer and vocational training has led to intense discussions about what constitutes general education for all students. Courses in the humanities are most commonly visible in the general education curriculum at community colleges. One or more of these courses are found in most associate degree programs and in many career certificate programs. Courses in English, history, and other humanities disciplines are found in program requirements because they are grounded either in the college’s philosophy of general education or in skill sets that employers seek, like effective communication and critical thinking.

I am a firm believer in the intrinsic value of the humanities, but I also firmly believe they serve as excellent vehicles for student skill development. Higher education and the humanities alike, especially at community colleges, now face a common challenge. As David Mathews puts it, “The most fundamental challenge that institutions of higher education face is to reestablish their public mandate” (2016, 39). The humanities have a place more relevant than ever in developing students’ desirable workplace skills and civic responsibility. At Germanna Community College (GCC) in Locust Grove, Virginia, disciplines like history and other humanities are developing a new sense of importance by embracing a skills-based approach to general education core competencies like civic engagement and problem solving. The VALUE rubrics developed by the Association of American Colleges and Universities have been influential in the evolutionary process of teaching and assessing these skills with our students. While we have gradually embraced competencies like civic learning and problem solving to different degrees over the past several years, they are becoming a central aspect of how our faculty conceptualize teaching history and other humanities courses.

Developing General Education Assessment Instruments

In 2015, I became the cochair of a department that included the disciplines of history, humanities, religion, philosophy, and music at GCC. Our first major task that year was to develop general education assessment instruments for history and humanities courses that embraced our college’s general education competencies of critical thinking and social and cultural understanding. A subcommittee of both full-time and part-time faculty from across the disciplines in the department selected the theme of citizenship for our assessments. Instructors committed to framing significant portions of the content they covered through the lens of citizenship and to continually provide students with opportunities to practice analyzing and reflecting on primary sources focused on citizenship.

In six of our history survey courses, we selected a primary source that the subcommittee felt best addressed ideas of citizenship in the context of each respective course. For example, in our US History I course, we chose an excerpt from Chief Justice Roger Taney’s majority opinion concerning the citizenship status of the former slave Dred Scott. After much debate and deliberation, we agreed on three civic-minded questions, tied to corresponding general education outcomes, that could be addressed from the perspective of each document. Our emphasis was on contextualization of the sources. The assessment questions were targeted mainly at the Civic Engagement VALUE Rubric's milestone and benchmark levels and to account for the fact that our focus was on understanding the past to be better informed in the present. We learned that it was of dire importance that history instructors develop a common and clear language related to citizenship. For example, students struggled to grasp the phrase “social institution” consistently across different sections of the course, and this often led to vague responses to some aspects of the questions. We identified developing a common language among instructors as an area to focus our improvement efforts in the future.

In our Humanities 100: Survey of the Humanities course, a similarly organized subcommittee from several disciplines in the department decided to focus on political and social interpretations of art to assess the competency of social and cultural understanding. The assessment would focus on the learning unit on modernism, with Guernica by Pablo Picasso as the primary source and two brief summary paragraphs written by the humanities faculty to provide some historical contextualization of the artwork. As part of the final exam, students were given these materials and asked in a writing prompt to reflect on how understanding the context of the artwork affected their perceptions of its cultural influence. They were also asked to reflect on if the political message they interpreted from the piece had any relevance to more recent social or political events. Responses to the prompt ranged from themes such as human sex trafficking to global terrorism or the conflict in Syria. Again, our assessment targeted milestones and benchmark levels for how we interpreted civic learning relevant to this course, but it was clear that our students were responding to the civic learning ideals we were trying to incorporate in these courses.

Shortly after our first assessment cycles, GCC adopted problem solving as the focus of its Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP). The QEP is an integral part of reaffirmation of accreditation for institutions in the Southern Association of Colleges-Commission on Colleges and is meant to be a project that a college or university would undertake to transform student learning or the student learning environment. After an extensive internal and external review of how we could better prepare students for the workforce, the college decided to infuse problem-based learning into our classroom instruction across all courses over the next five years. We turned to the Problem Solving VALUE Rubric for guidance in assessing student learning for problem solving.

Two survey courses in American history were selected as part of the first wave of courses to incorporate problem-based learning. As a department, we decided to merge our civic learning initiative with the new college-wide problem-solving initiative and developed a collaborative project that students would complete over the course of the semester. We presented each class with an ill-defined problem in a real-world scenario:

The board of directors at the fictional Spotswood Museum has tasked your class with designing new gallery exhibits, selecting relevant artifacts, and organizing the museum in a way that tells a story about America. The galleries should be reflective of five major themes, or historical questions, the class has selected. Each group will present their gallery as part of a final exam and each individual student must write a two-page reflection addressing their own learning experience in each of the Problem Solving VALUE Rubric learning outcomes.

For our history courses, the reflection prompt questions are civic in nature and are derived from both the Problem Solving and Civic Engagement VALUE rubrics. Some examples, with assignment instructions that align with specific rubric goals in parentheses, include:

  • Do you think these were the best overall themes to represent American history? (Identify strategies/diversity of communities and cultures.)
  • Why did you choose the objects to interpret this space the way you did? Were there alternative objects that you declined to use? (Propose multiple solutions/analysis of knowledge/civic communication.)
  • Do you think the gallery you constructed represents the American experience? How do you think your gallery will be received by the public? (Evaluate the impact of the selected solution/civic action and reflection.)

Our first student responses were ready for us to score using the rubrics in fall 2018. These assignments were scored once using the Problem Solving VALUE Rubric for college-wide assessment and then again for the history content and civic learning outcomes we apply as individual history instructors. From these three projects, we have found the VALUE rubrics to be exceptional planning guides, flexible frameworks for meeting our assessment scoring needs, and compatible in merging assessments for more than one core competency in a single assignment.

Wicked Problems

Including civic learning as a strategy has often placed my students in the path of wicked problems. Wicked problems are complex, have numerous causes, and rarely have a single solution. As David Mathews suggests, people “don’t agree on what the problems are, much less what should be done about them. . . . The disputes aren’t over questions of fact but over what is the right thing to do” (2016, 34). As a history instructor, discussing wicked problems in today’s political climate may perhaps be the most important way I can foster civic learning.

During the spring 2017 semester, a national controversy re-emerged concerning the place of Confederate monuments in the public sphere. In Virginia, the issue is a very local and personal one. At our Fredericksburg campus, we are no more than fifteen miles away from four major civil war battlefields. Controversy has erupted time and time again concerning the presence of a slave auction block monument in the center of downtown. Our proximity to Richmond and Charlottesville means that national news is really local news when it comes to controversies concerning Confederate icons in public spaces. For us, the issue has become a wicked problem.

During the 2016–17 academic year, classroom conversations in nearly all of my courses commonly returned to the debate concerning public displays of Confederate icons. By the spring, I began to notice that students were weary of the topic and more prone to irritable outbursts. I was shocked when the topic emerged in conversation again late in the spring and a student frustratingly lamented that none of their opinions mattered because the conversation belonged to the voices of social media extremes. One does not need to spend long scrolling social media feeds to realize that perhaps she was right. If, as Theis (2016, 46) said, “democracy . . . is a mechanism for decision making among people who have a shared existence in space and time,” then it was discouraging that my students felt that their opinions in this space and this time did not matter. I determined then that students learning to be engaged citizens needed a platform to have open discussions about this wicked problem. In my upcoming US History and Film course, I decided we would attempt to tackle the issue through an experiential learning process of making an amateur documentary. Students would become authoritative through their research and collaborative in their production of the film.

With the generous permission of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, a group of thirty enthusiastic students spent ten weeks in the summer researching local civil war history, monuments, and memorials and produced roughly ninety minutes of footage. Students researched and collaborated on a series of assignments like visits to the four major battlefields in the area. They did research on how Northerners and Southerners dealt with the Fourth of July in the press during the war, an assignment inspired by the Mapping the Fourth project conducted by the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies at Virginia Tech.

In small teams organized by common interests, each group wrote a short script that focused on the events and monuments that had caught their attention the most during our visits to the battlefields and other sites and that discussed how those experiences informed their opinions on the national debate about the monuments. With the instrumental help of a student intern with a passion for filmmaking, we met at various student-selected points on the battlefield sites so that each group could get the experience of filming on location and all of the challenges that came with that process. For the final exam, students were asked to reflect on and respond on camera to a series of three poignant questions about their experience and the importance of the civil war in American history. In the final week of the course, we edited the footage down to a thirty-minute film complete with each student’s reflection.

We held a private showing for the students and their families and friends but saved the public viewing for GCC’s History Day event that fall. At the time of the public viewing, the terrible events of the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally in August were still fresh in the minds of the viewing audience, so the film held even more national relevance than when we began the project. Public support for the film was overwhelming and several of the students were able to attend to discuss their experience. While some in the audience did not necessarily agree with all of the students’ interpretations and opinions, there was an honest sense of mutual respect in their questions and comments. Most importantly, students were confident in their conclusions and no longer felt stifled in the public sphere. They had an authoritative and collaborative voice in this space and this time.

The Civic Engagement VALUE Rubric was instrumental in grading this experiential and reflective learning assignment. Utilizing concepts from this rubric provided better structure and more consistency in how I assessed student achievement in civic learning. The civic-learning outcomes were measured across multiple assignments that led to the final documentary content, so I was able to associate specific outcomes for certain assignments. There was a valuable lesson to be learned here as well—remember who your students are!


While I had aspirations of individual students achieving capstone-level success in these learning outcomes, it was important to remember that my first- and second-year students at the community college were enrolled mainly in introductory-level survey courses. Civic learning was a new concept for many of them, and they were still honing their other foundational skills like critical thinking and communication. As they reached benchmark and milestone levels of success, I revised my assignments to enable all my students to gain comprehensive civic learning. Understanding this greatly improved my teaching as well. In cases where students scored at the capstone level for the individual reflections, I saw this as a prime indicator for success in their future educational endeavors in the workplace and as productive citizens capable of tackling wicked problems. And what they accomplished as a group was, in my opinion, a capstone level of success for each of them.

The work we have done with civic engagement and problem solving in our department at GCC is far from finished. But the foundations we have established in embracing civic learning in our history and humanities courses and the guidance of the VALUE rubrics have helped prepare us for the greater work ahead.


Gallup. 2018. “Confidence in Institutions.” Retrieved from

Mathews, David. 2016. “The Community College’s Role in Helping to Make Democracy Work as It Should.” New Directions for Community Colleges 173: 33−40.

Theis, John J. 2016. “Political Science, Civic Engagement, and the Wicked Problems of Democracy.” New Directions for Community Colleges 173: 41−49.

Truman Commission on Higher Education. 1947. Higher Education for Democracy: A Report of the President’s Commission on Higher Education (Vol. 1–2). New York: Harper.

Eric Vanover, Assistant Professor of History, Germanna Community College

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