A Civic Purposes Roundtable considers the role of higher education in preparing students for lives of social and political engagement
Among enlightened company, nothing brings nods of assent quite like the notion that college graduates should be prepared to lead lives of civic engagement. It is a sentiment-this call for students ready and able to take up lives of informed citizenship-that figures prominently in the mission of virtually every institution of higher education. Its affirmation is so natural as to be instinctive-and yet it is one in which affirmative nods too often become preludes to simply nodding off.
Today, too many of the nation's colleges and universities simply proclaim the importance of civic engagement. Too few do much more than publish lists documenting their students' volunteer activities as evidence of a broader institutional investment in the public well-being. Only a handful can be said to practice models of civic engagement in which the interests of community and academy are purposefully entwined.
As long as colleges and universities can fulfill their obligation to educate students for citizenship primarily through anecdote and symbolism, nodding off may in fact be the most natural response. When the opposite is true-when an institution begins to take seriously its commitment to civic engagement by changing its curriculum and approaches to learning, its criteria for awarding tenure, or its capital campaign goals-every eye pops open, every head hunkers down in anticipation of protracted debate.
It is a debate worth having, if for no other reason than America itself has changed: Its citizens have become more mobile, its communities more diverse, its arguments more fractious. Changed as well are how people behave toward one another, how they communicate, what they think governments can do, and what roles they believe markets can play. Through it all there is simply less civic participation, less of a sense of common identity, less commitment to a collective vision that is centered in civic or political purposes or in the responsibilities that attend the conveying of citizenship.
It is also a debate worth having because American colleges and universities have both the capacity and the obligation to educate a citizenry that takes a strong, active part in the nation's civic and political affairs. Through the issues they promote or eschew, colleges and universities help create the conditions that encourage as well as discourage the kind of informed participation on which civic engagement depends. What is required-what will give the issue of civic engagement the kind of traction it perhaps never has had-is a commitment to make questions of public pursuits central to the campus agenda.
Making the issue real means making civic engagement an integral part of a campus' own governance. It means building partnerships that extend beyond the campus community narrowly defined. It means acting on the principle that fostering a more engaged citizenry ultimately serves higher education's own purposes as well as those of society in general.
Our Civic Purposes Roundtable, convened jointly by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education and the Knight Higher Education Collaborative, was in many ways a rehearsal for the kind of discourse we have in mind. Our goal was to state as clearly as possible how the nation's colleges and universities might contribute to a greater sense of collective purpose and commitment within the American polity. What kinds of actions could make the cultivation of civic purposes more central, not just to the agenda of colleges and universities but to the goals and accomplishments of the students who attend them? What strategies could register the value of civic engagement in sharper relief for a population of learning consumers who, like much of contemporary society, are more concerned with personal rather than societal returns on the time and effort they expend?
This issue of Policy Perspectives itself should attest that answering these questions is no simple matter. Nearly every attempt to define common ground is likely to confront issues that are deep and pervasive, in which there are few answers that satisfy everyone, and many that please no one.
In our own passage through these disputed territories we came to understand more clearly just how important, as well as difficult, it is to sustain a dialogue focusing on the academy's obligations to prepare students for lives of citizenship in addition to individual success. At the same time, we came away from those encounters with a renewed sense of purpose, energized both by what is possible and by the unacceptability of just leaving matters be. This was one sleeping dog we resolved not to let lie.
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