Diversity and Democracy

Civic Learning: A Critical Investment in Democratic Engagement

With the drifting seeds of economic change still settling around the world after recent market shakeups, it's hardly surprising that marketplace metaphors have been springing up in common parlance. Nonetheless, it's distressing to find the language of economic downturn taking root in discussions of civic life. Like the global economy, some have argued, America's civic livelihood is suffering from a "recession," so described by civic education leader Charles Quigley and substantiated by reports like the Nation's Report Card on Civics (2011). This language marks a troubling trend that AAC&U will take up at its 2012 Annual Meeting with a symposium titled "Reversing a Civic Recession: What Higher Education Can Do" (see www.aacu.org for details).

As Larry Braskamp describes in this issue of Diversity & Democracy, recent roundtables at the US Department of Education have revealed growing concern about the seemingly depleted value of the nation's civic stock. Yet despite this evidence of a civic recession, pockets of real engagement exist both in higher education and in society. On campuses across the country, colleges and universities are identifying best practices to prepare students for greater civic engagement, and leaders of the civic learning movement are seeking clarity and shared focus for their work. 

Thus higher education is playing an important role in equipping today's students with the knowledge, skills, and capacities they need to invest in their democratic futures rather than default on democracy's debts. And with greater investments across institutions, higher education can play an even more significant role in this important cultural shift. This issue thus offers a range of examples of the different civic learning opportunities colleges and universities are offering to prepare students to participate in a diverse and globally interconnected democracy. Our authors share issue-driven and course-based models, as well as institution-wide attempts to make civic learning a key component of the undergraduate curriculum.

These models, although described using diverse language, share a worthwhile goal: to prepare American students to participate in democratic forums, even and especially in this time of economic need. Without this preparation, students may be rehearsing for work in a challenging economic environment without developing the critical skills they will need to build a new and more vibrant democratic society. In fact, the two goals are connected: As Martha Nussbaum has noted, "A flourishing economy requires the same skills that support citizenship" (2010). These skills include the ability to consider multiple angles, converse with those who hold different perspectives, and compromise to creatively solve urgent problems. Such are the habits that a liberal education engenders, and such education can help reverse our civic recession and inspire democratic engagement now and in the future.

—Kathryn Peltier Campbell, editor


Nussbaum, Martha. 2010. "The Liberal Arts Are Not Elitist." Chronicle of Higher Education, June 10.

Quigley, Charles. 2011. "Call to Action: National Assessment of Educational Progress." Woodland Hills, CA: Center for Civic Education. http://new.civiced.org/resources/civic-education-links/call-to-action.

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