Diversity and Democracy

Higher Education for Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement: Reinvesting in Longstanding Commitments

Throughout its history, American higher education has prepared students for principled citizenship in a democratic society. But at times--as at present, when the rhetoric surrounding higher education has focused ever more sharply on higher education's role in fueling economic growth--it has approached these obligations somewhat tentatively. When it comes to forming and informing future citizens of the United States and of the globe, however, now is not the time for hesitation. Now is the time for higher education to be both responsible and responsive to society at large, a critic of societal ills and a voice of what is good and worthy within current economic, political, social, and religious contexts. Those of us in higher education must now reinvest in longstanding commitments to collaborate with society in preparing students to become effective workers and citizens. We need to propose specific actions to strengthen this role—and we need to do so with a sense of urgency.

What factors make these actions so necessary? For one, society is rapidly becoming more pluralistic (indeed, US minority populations are expected to outnumber non-Hispanic whites by 2042 [Roberts 2008]). The degree of global interconnectedness is also becoming even more transparent. Technological changes have affected the worldviews and experiences of today's college students, with new social media serving as vehicles of communication and interaction that have changed how students relate to others and how they learn in school. Global economic uncertainties demand that we adapt how we think about, plan, and conduct commerce and education. In these contexts, those of us in higher education need to reexamine our roles in preparing citizens for participation in both our democratic society and the larger community. In short, in these changing and challenging times, higher education must refocus its efforts on remaining responsible as well as responsive to the world's people (a task I have written about elsewhere; see, for example, Braskamp 1998). American colleges and universities can not only educate students for responsible citizenship but also act as leaders in their local and global communities—and earn those communities' support—by ensuring that their work is of service to the greater society.

A National Project

Since September 2010, the Global Perspective Institute and the Association of American Colleges and Universities have collaborated in conducting a project on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, funded by the US Department of Education. In early 2011, we held five national roundtables that involved a total of 125 participants, collectively representing sixty higher education institutions (including community colleges, four-year colleges, and universities), thirty civic organizations, eleven private and government foundations, fourteen higher education associations, and twelve disciplinary societies. A variety of stakeholders—civic leaders, college presidents, students, faculty, student affairs staff, policymakers, researchers, community leaders, and heads of civic entities on and off campuses—provided us with feedback on a draft of a national action plan on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement. Based on these discussions and on feedback from a diverse eleven-member coordinating committee, we have revised the national action plan for submission to the Department of Education in September 2011.

After submitting our recommendations to the department, we plan to discuss them with multiple stakeholders within the federal government and across the higher education community. We hope that these conversations and the plan itself will help educators once again place civic learning and democratic engagement at the core of their missions so that every student has the opportunity and support to become informed, engaged, and globally knowledgeable. (Visit our website, civiclearning.org, for more information about the process to date and about our next steps.)

In the interest of letting the national action plan stand on its own, I will refrain from summarizing it here. Rather, in this column I will provide my perspective about what we have learned over the course of the Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement project, describing several key issues and themes that have emerged. This issue of Diversity & Democracy highlights multiple initiatives that illustrate how higher education is fulfilling the task of being a responsive and responsible partner to society. But as the action plan underscores, more initiatives like these are needed across higher education to fully repair the broken societal compacts that are weakening the contemporary social fabric. While higher education cannot repair these compacts alone, it can build on a robust foundation of knowledge, skills, and experience instilled by K–12 education before students matriculate in college.

Defining Terms

During the roundtable conversations, it quickly became clear that participants had varying interpretations of what the terms civic learning and democratic engagement actually mean. Based on these conversations, I have concluded that rather than establishing consensus about definitions, we need to respect how each college or university interprets and uses these words. At the same time, it is useful to set parameters around terms as we use them.

As we found during the national roundtables, many stakeholders prefer the term civic engagement to describe their work. What, then, is one possible definition of civic engagement? Thomas Ehrlich describes it this way: "Civic engagement means working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference. It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and nonpolitical processes" (2000, vi).

I like this definition. It portrays a holistic view of student learning and development, suggesting that humans need to integrate how they think and act (knowledge and skills), how they view themselves (values and motivation), and how they relate to others in the community. In short, it incorporates knowing, being, and doing—or using one's head, heart, and hands. This integration is especially important when it comes to students practicing real-world engagement with those who are unlike them through problem solving in the public sphere and in the workplace.

Holistic learning through hands-on engagement not only prepares students for work and citizenship in their diverse local and global communities, but also has additional benefits. Students who address real-world challenges within their diverse communities may be more motivated to stay in college, resulting in higher retention rates (Campus Compact 2008)—a primary objective of today's policymakers. But to reap these benefits on a large scale, colleges and universities will need to see civic learning and democratic engagement not as optional, but as integral to helping students become fully developed human beings prepared to live and work in an interdependent society. And to make these factors integral, they will need to look closely at their learning environments.

The Learning Environment

What learning environments most effectively foster civic learning and democratic engagement? Students do not learn in a vacuum, but rather through exposure, reflection, and practice, where they apply their knowledge, use their skills, develop their values, and acquire the motivation to become engaged citizens working for the benefit of others as well as of themselves. But what is the nature and character of institutions that foster such development?

For civic engagement to be part of the landscape of American higher education, it "must be central, rather than marginal, institutionalized rather than fragmented" (Jacoby and Associates 2009, 227). It must be integral to the institution rather than something that students encounter haphazardly through the curriculum and cocurriculum. And for this to happen, it must become a key component of institutional identity, with faculty deeply involved in creating engaged academic communities that reflect and model the values of democracy and freedom.

Over the course of the national roundtables, the role of institutions as community partners was an important topic of discussion. Several notable examples of institutional leadership in this area exist. Tulane University in New Orleans has served as a community leader in rebuilding the city and its infrastructure after Hurricane Katrina. The University of Illinois at Chicago has partnered with the city of Chicago through its "Great Cities" initiative to improve schools, governmental agencies, and the local economy. Wagner College, which strives to be "part of the city" of New York, has combined liberal arts learning and practical experience to guide students in serving the Port Richmond neighborhood of Staten Island. Associate-degree-granting Georgia Perimeter College has dedicated itself to strengthening communities and fostering student and faculty civic engagement through its new Atlanta Center for Civic Engagement and Student Learning. Many institutions have become anchors in their communities, partners in local development who reach across social and economic barriers. They have become actively engaged in the local community in multiple ways and have come to see themselves as good citizens.

Although these partnerships are sometimes less developed than in the examples above, their seeds exist on almost every campus. Rather than one-way communications of technical and scholarly expertise bestowed by the campus on the community, the most successful of these partnerships have evolved into ongoing projects where students, faculty, and community members engage in public problem solving together. They are more than extensions of the institutions into their rural and urban communities, and more than outreach to others. They are intentional partnerships where all participants—including students—work collaboratively as experts, teachers, role models, and problem solvers.

To What End?

What are the desired outcomes of education that is centered on civic learning and democratic engagement? What does education focused on these topics mean not only for students, but also for local, national, and global communities? Will such an education address visionary goals like reducing poverty and violence; increasing inclusion for people who have historically been marginalized; honoring and respecting different values, lifestyles, and cultural and faith traditions; and enhancing personal and community well-being?

I want to argue that education should address all these issues and goals, yielding structural changes toward the common good as a result of defined student learning outcomes. But in making this claim, I cannot avoid addressing the value-based question of what is meant by thecommon good. In the United States today, the common good is not a monolithic patriotic ideal, but a continuously contested vision based in competing ideas. Yet its foundational principles remain the same: all members of society are responsible for contributing to their multiple communities, extending around the entire globe. All people, regardless of social status, ethnicity, lifestyle, and faith tradition, deserve respect and the freedom to contribute to bettering others' circumstances while fostering their own development as human beings.

Bringing this vision to fruition will require higher education to build many avenues, all converging on one goal. Not all students will be interested in pursuing the same road to civic learning and democratic engagement. Not all colleges can provide students with the same experiences, nor should they. All can, however, expose students to public problem solving through guided, community-based educational opportunities and simultaneous critical reflection. These opportunities need to be about more than altruism. They need to focus on sustained civic and community development, on building lasting infrastructure that addresses structural inequality while fostering habits of the head and heart.

Higher education has long built on fundamental principles of civic engagement, pursuing ends that are more expansive than promoting private gain. At the current moment, it needs to recommit itself to advancing the greater good, to educating students to become civic minded by cultivating the necessary skills, habits, and knowledge. By doing so, it can return at this critical time to the well-worn path of being responsive and responsible to the needs and future of students, communities, and a society where global interconnectedness and pluralism are more salient than ever.


Braskamp, Larry A. 1998. "On Being Responsive and Responsible." CHEA Chronicle 1 (6).http://www.chea.org/Chronicle/vol1/no6/index.html.

Campus Compact. 2008. Building Engaged Campuses. http://www.compact.org/

Ehrlich, Thomas. 2000. Civic Responsibility and Higher Education. Westport, CT: American Council on Education and Oryx Press.

Jacoby, Barbara, and Associates. 2009. Civic Engagement in Higher Education: Concepts and Practices. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Roberts, Sam. 2008. "In a Generation, Minorities May Be the US Majority." New York Times, August 13. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/14/washington/14census.html.

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