A crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future a report to the Nation Submitted by The Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement National Task Force on behalf of The Global Perspective Institute, Inc

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A Crucible Moment:
College Learning and Democracy’s Future

A Report to the Nation

Submitted by

The Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement National Task Force

on behalf of

The Global Perspective Institute, Inc. (GPI, Inc.) and the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U)

The U.S. Department of Education

October 5, 2011

This project has been funded at least in part with Federal funds from the U.S. Department of Education under contract number ED-OPE-10-C-0078 . The content of this publication does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments 4

I. Why Education for Democratic Citizenship Matters 6

II. Crucible Moments of Civic Learning: Then and Now 28

III. Education for Democracy in the 21st Century: A National Call to Action 37

IV. Trailblazers for Civic Learning: From Periphery to Pervasiveness 63

V. A Foundation Partially Laid: Pathways to Democratic Engagement 76

VI. Conclusion 99

References 101

Appendix I Task Force Members 111

Appendix II Project Staff and Dates of National Roundtables 112

Appendix III National Roundtables: Participant List 113

Appendix IV National Roundtables Participating Organizations 118

Each generation must work to preserve the fundamental values and principles of its heritage . . .to narrow the gap between the ideals of this nation and the reality of the daily lives of its people; and to more fully realize the potential of our constitutional, democratic republic. We can emerge from this civic recession, but to do so will require a full-scale national investment from every level of government and every sector of society.”

Charles N. Quigley, Executive Director, Center for Civic Education

(May 4, 2011 Statement on The Nation’s Report Card: Civics 2010)


The present report, A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future, was prepared at the invitation of the U.S. Department of Education, under a contract to the Global Perspective Institute, Inc. (GPI) and a subcontract to the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) under the leadership of GPI President Larry Braskamp and AAC&U Senior Vice President Caryn McTighe Musil. The charge was to assess the state of education for democracy and produce a paper with a National Call to Action through which multiple stakeholders could significantly increase democratic participation and the number of informed, engaged, and globally knowledgeable civic participants.

The report is deeply influenced by a series of five national roundtables organized by GPI and AAC&U between December 2010 and March 2011. These gatherings deliberately sought to bring together diverse constituents and those with divergent opinions about civic learning and how to make it central for every student rather than optional for only a few. We are grateful to each person who spent a day in Washington, DC deliberating with us and sent in many written responses to draft versions of the report. This process involved 134 participants representing 61 community colleges, four-year colleges, and universities; 26 civic organizations; 9 private and government funding agencies; 15 higher education associations; and 12 disciplinary societies. Participants included civic leaders, college presidents, students, faculty, student affairs professionals, policy makers, heads of funding agencies, community leaders, higher education researchers, and directors of civic entities on and off campus.

We are grateful for the wise advice and guidance of the project’s Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement National Task Force whose names are listed in Appendix I. They brought to the project their wide ranging scholarship, long experience as national leaders, and passion for student learning and cultivating a robust democratic society.

We acknowledge the support of the U.S. Department of Education, which spearheaded the call for elevating civic learning and democratic engagement in the everyday experiences of college students wherever they are, and whatever they are studying.

The project was enhanced by AAC&U staff: the excellent thinking and organizational skills of Nancy O’Neill, the attentiveness to detail of Van Luu, and the resourcefulness of Eleanor Hall.

We also want to acknowledge the important contribution to the project of Nancy L. Thomas, the executive director of The Democracy Imperative, who wrote an initial draft of the report in October 2010. Caryn McTighe Musil’s revised document that you have before you is informed by the recommendations from the national roundtables, National Task Force members, and feedback from many sources to multiple drafts over the intervening eleven months.

Larry Braskamp, GPI

Caryn McTighe Musil, AAC&U

A Crucible Moment:
College Learning and Democracy’s Future

I. Why Education for Democratic Citizenship Matters

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Preamble to the Constitution of the Unites States of America

“Did you…suppose democracy was only for elections, for politics, and for a party name? I say democracy is only of use there that it may pass on and come to its flower and fruits in manners, in the highest forms of interaction between men, and their beliefs—in religion, literature, colleges, and schools—democracy in all public and private life…”

Walt Whitman, Democratic Vistas (quoted in Barber and Battistoni 2011)

Events “are moving us toward what cannot be,” warns David Mathews, president of the Kettering Foundation, “a citizenless democracy” (London 2010, iv). The oxymoronic phrase is chilling. Mathews points to a whole set of trends and practices that “sideline citizens”: recasting people’s roles from producers of public goods to consumers of material ones, gerrymandering districts and thus exacerbating the deep divides that already shape our politics, shrinking opportunities for civic alliances, and replacing what ought to be thoughtful deliberation about public issues with incivility and hyper-polarization. The most recent Civic Health Index captures citizen passivity in its finding that only 10% of citizens contacted a public official in the previous year (Corporation for National and Community Service and the National Conference on Citizenship 2010).

In response to these and other dangerous trends, this national report calls for investing on a massive scale in higher education’s capacity to help renew this nation’s social, intellectual, and civic capital.

A decade ago, Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone (2000) argued that there was a decline in social capital, especially in what he referred to as “bridging capital,” which he defined as capacities to work across differences. Withdrawal into comfortable enclaves and wariness of others who are different persist, while public confidence in the nation’s political institutions erodes in a downward trajectory. A New York Times/CBS News poll on September 16, 2011 revealed that only 12% of American approve of the way Congress is handling its job (Kopicki). In 2007 a conference entitled “Civic Disengagement in our Democracy” provided evidence that among the 172 world democracies, the U.S. ranks 139th in voter participation (McCormick Tribune Foundation, 2007, 6). Conference leaders also warned that there was a “decline in quality and quantity of civic education in schools” (7). These assessments reiterate an earlier warning from the National Commission on Civic Renewal chaired by William Bennett and Sam Nunn in 1998 that asserted, “In a time that cries out for civic action, we are in danger of becoming a nation of spectators” (1998, 12).

As a democracy, the United States depends on a knowledgeable, public-spirited, and engaged population. Education plays a fundamental role in building civic vitality, and in the 21st century, higher education has a distinctive role to play in the renewal of U.S. democracy. Although the National Commission on Civic Renewal overlooked higher education as a potential source of civic renewal, this report argues that colleges and universities are among the nation’s most valuable laboratories for civic learning and democratic engagement. The beneficiaries of investing in such learning are not just students or higher education itself. The more civic-oriented colleges and universities become, the greater their overall capacity to spur local and global economic vitality, social and political well-being, and collective action to address public problems.

But today, the forms of civic learning that should be a resource both for educational excellence and for democratic renewal are provided only for a minority of students, lessening higher education’s potential civic impact. Programs at many postsecondary institutions are not designed to prepare students to engage the questions Americans face as a global democratic power.

With this report we call on the higher education community—and all its stakeholders—to embrace civic learning and democratic engagement as an undisputed educational priority for all of higher education, public and private, two-year and four-year. That will require constructing educational environments where education for democracy and civic responsibility is pervasive, not partial; central, not peripheral.

David Mathews describes democracy as depending on an ecosystem, not only of legislative bodies and executive agencies, but also of civic alliances, social norms, and deliberative practices that empower people to work together in what Elinor Ostrom calls the “coproduction” of public goods (London 2010, iv). Every sector and every person can contribute to this civic enterprise, including the K-12 education sector, where educating for democracy and civic responsibility needs to be a bedrock expectation.

A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future focuses specifically on how higher education can serve—for this generation of students and for the nation’s globally-situated democracy—as one of the defining sites for learning and practicing democratic and civic responsibilities. While all parts of the higher education enterprise have roles to play in building civic capital for our society, the focus of this report is on undergraduate education. With postsecondary education now viewed as necessary preparation for today’s economy, higher education has a new and unparalleled opportunity to engage the majority of Americans with the challenges we face as a diverse and globally engaged democracy. Moreover, today’s U.S. college campuses, both physical and virtual, bring together a wider range of students than ever in our history across class and color, religion and gender, nationalities and ages. As such, two and four-year colleges and universities offer an intellectual and public commons. There it is possible not only to theorize about what education for democratic citizenship in a diverse society might require, but also to rehearse that citizenship daily in the fertile, roiling context of inquiry and hands-on experiences accomplished with fresh insights amidst differences.

Unfortunately, the commitment to foster foundational knowledge about U.S. democracy or to expand civic capacities to shape a better world in concert with others has been pushed off the priority list in K-12 schools. Nor is it yet an expectation for every college student. Like the ocean at low tide, even the most minimal gestures toward civic education have begun to recede from the K-12 curriculum. While there is some prodding about civic matters from some State Higher Education Commissions, they usually center on community service done outside a classroom context or focus on increasing the number of citizens who vote. Both of these are valuable goals, but even together they are insufficient to offset the civic erosion we are experiencing. The times call for visionary leadership that locates education for democracy as a focal point of educational study, reflection, and practice. This moment in history also calls on us to embrace a comprehensive and contemporary vision for civic learning that includes knowledge, skills, values, and the capacity to work with others on civic and societal challenges. Investing in these forms of learning can help increase the number of informed, thoughtful, and public-minded citizens more prepared to contribute in the context of the diverse, dynamic, globally connected United States.

The gravitation pull, however, is in exactly the opposite direction—to democracy’s peril. As former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor observes, “Half of the states no longer make it [civics] a requirement to get out of high school,” which she describes as “a remarkable withdrawal from the very purpose we had originally for public school” (2010).

Ten indicators of anemic U.S. civic health

1. U.S. ranked 139th in voter participation of 172 world democracies in 2007.

2. The 2010 Civic Health Index indicates that only 10% of citizens contacted a public official in 2008-2009.

3. 24% of graduating high school seniors scored at the proficient or advanced level in civics in 2010, fewer than in 2006 or in 1998.

4. Fewer than 70% of high school seniors reported learning about important parts of civic knowledge in 2010, including the U.S. Constitution, Congress, or the court system.

5. Half of the states no longer require civics education for high school graduation.

6. College seniors scored only 54% correct answers on a test measuring civic knowledge.

7. Opportunities to develop civic skills in high school through community service, school government, or clubs are available disproportionately to wealthier students.

8. Just over one third college faculty surveyed in 2007 strongly agreed that their campus actively promotes awareness of U.S. or global social, political, and economic issues.

9. 35.8% of college students surveyed strongly agreed that faculty publicly advocate the need for students to become active and involved citizens.

10. One third of college students surveyed strongly agreed that their college education resulted in increased civic capacities.

Note: All the indicators above are taken from references embedded in the body of the report where their citations can be found.

Secondary schools typically require only three years of history and social studies altogether to address the entire spectrum of U.S. history, world and western history, global cultures and challenges, democratic ideals and institutions, and the social and political systems that frame our world. With such compressed time devoted to these topics, students learn too little about them. In the most recent national test of history competence, only 12% of U.S. seniors performed at or above the proficient level (National Center for Education Statistics 2011a). Similarly, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s report assigned thirty-five states an F grade because the history standards in their states “require little or no mention” of the civil rights movement” (Dillon 2011), which is the most powerful example in the twentieth century of a transformative, broad-based, intergenerational and interracial social movement for full democratic citizenship. Furthermore, researchers find that opportunities to work directly on civic issues in high school through community service, school government, or service clubs are disproportionately available to wealthier students (CIRCLE 2002).

Notably, despite all of the energy being devoted to the development of “Common Core Standards” by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, the standards released in 2010 do not address the content knowledge students need for democratic citizenship or global participation. At the federal level, the Department of Education’s March 2010 ESEA Blueprint for Reform calls for “a complete education” that includes not only literacy, mathematics, science, and technology but also history, civics, foreign languages, the arts, and other subjects. Yet even here the report makes clear that public reporting of student achievement in this more ambitious conception of 21st century school learning is left to the discretion of the states (U.S. Department of Education 2010). This Task Force believes that a great democracy needs to hold itself accountable for all students’ civic and democratic learning, U.S. and global.

And so, as numerous studies reveal, we find ourselves in the midst of what Charles N. Quigley, Executive Director of the Center for Civic Education, calls a “civic recession.” The U.S. Department of Education’s 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in civics for K-12 education underscores one facet of that disturbing reality (see sidebar next page). NAEP examines 4th, 8th, and 12th grade competencies in five basic civic concepts: civic life, the American political system, principles of democracy, world affairs, and roles of citizens (National Center for Education Statistics 2011b). As the 2011 report explains, the assessment is not gauging mere recitation of facts but students’ ability to identify and describe concepts, explain and analyze them, and evaluate and defend a position.

The most recent results were abysmal. Looking at the 2010 average score for each grade level against those from 2006 and 1998, there was no significant change in average score for 8th graders, and there was an actual decline for 12th graders. Fewer high school seniors scored at the proficient or advanced level than in 2006. A higher percentage scored below basic levels. The only heartening finding was a 3% improvement in civic literacy among 4th graders since 2006. There is indeed an eclipse of civic knowledge, and it is of a long duration.

With so many students now enrolling in higher education, we might hope that postsecondary study would repair these omissions and build the kinds of civic knowledge that a global democracy needs. But here too, studies show the opposite. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute measures civic knowledge among college students. Half of 14,000 incoming freshmen tested by ISI failed a 60-question multiple choice test; seniors fared only slightly better with seniors scoring 54% correct answers, which is still a failing grade (Barton and Coley 2011, 27). It is no surprise then that most Americans cannot name the liberties protected in the Bill of Rights, and, when polled about it, seem to think such rights are unnecessary (Romano 2011). Many cannot name the vice president of the United States, their senators, or their state representatives. Measured by most political talk shows and many town hall meetings, civil discourse and taking seriously the perspectives of others remain largely unpracticed arts.

Findings from The Nation’s Report Card: Civics 2010

  • 24% of graduating high school seniors scored at the proficient or advanced levels for civics, while 36% scored below the basic level.

  • Less than one-half of 12th graders reported studying international topics as part of a civics education, and fewer than 70% reported learning about certain important areas of domestic civic knowledge including the U.S. Constitution, Congress, the court system, or elections and voting. All of these figures reflect decreases from 1998 levels.

  • Racial gaps in student performance continue to be substantial: A 29-point gap exists between the average scores of white and African American high school seniors, and a 19-point gap exists between white and Hispanic high school seniors.

Findings from Nation’s Report Card: Civics 2010

  • 24% of graduating high school seniors scored at the proficient or advanced levels for civics in 2010, with 36% scoring at the below basic level.

  • Fewer than one half of 12th graders reported studying international topics as part of a civics education, and fewer than 70% reported learning about certain important areas of domestic civic knowledge including the U.S. Constitution, Congress, the court system, or elections and voting. All of these figures reflect decreases from 1998 levels.

  • Racial gaps in student performance continue to be substantial: A 29-point gap between the average scores of white and African American high school seniors, and a 19-point gap between white and Hispanic high school seniors.

Our nation finds itself in a befuddling juxtaposition of realities. We have the highest access to voting rights in our history, but struggle to muster half of eligible voters to exercise their rights. Despite a public that remains quite disengaged with electoral politics, Gallup’s poll on civic health reveals that Americans contribute more time and money to those in need than citizens in any country in the world (Gallup 2011). There is, then, not a shortage of individual acts of generosity but rather of civic knowledge and action.
Confounding matters, many public leaders have not turned to higher education to leverage the civic deficits that threaten the vitality of U.S. democracy. This is a dramatic oversight. Over the last two decades, hundreds of trailblazing colleges and universities have led the way toward democratic renewal by building innovative forms of civic learning for students and establishing transformative partnerships with the wider community, at home and abroad. In these programs, citizens, faculty, and students work together on a host of public problems, ranging from education and poverty to health and sustainability. In applying knowledge to address real-world issues in concert with others, some colleges are helping students move from civic knowledge to civic action, thus enhancing their preparation to be informed, active citizens when they graduate.

Tom Ehrlich, a distinguished civic scholar and leader, describes the civic reform movement: “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” (Ehrlich 2000, vi).

While the civic reform movement in higher education has affected almost all campuses, its influence is partial rather than pervasive. Civic learning and democratic engagement remain optional rather than expected for almost all students. As this report explains in Chapters IV and V, civic efforts already in place in postsecondary education can and should be taken to the next level and become integral to postsecondary learning whatever the students’ area of study. Moreover, this emergent kind of civic engagement ought to be better aligned with needed reforms in K-12. Nonetheless, higher education’s investments in education for democracy are sufficiently advanced that researchers now are able to report their positive impact on civic learning and democratic engagement for those college students who took part (Vogelgesang and Astin 2005; Colby et al. 2003; Jacoby and Associates 2009). We know that the more students take part in high-quality civic experiences in college, the greater their growth along many civic dimensions. As this report will explain in more detail, we also know that students’ involvement in these activities is positively correlated with increased retention and completion rates (Brownell and Swaner 2010; Campus Compact 2008). This is promising news indeed for a nation where far too many students leave college without completing a degree.

A More Comprehensive Definition of Civic Learning is Required in the 21st Century
With its focus on higher education as a site for citizenship, A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future uses the dual terms of civic learning and democratic engagement to emphasize the civic significance of preparing students with knowledge and for action. Today’s education for democracy needs to be informed by deep engagement with the values of liberty, equality, individual worth, open mindedness, and the willingness to collaborate—with people of differing views and backgrounds—towards common solutions for the public good. Anne Colby and her colleagues capture the complexity of civic learning and democratic engagement when they define democracy as “fundamentally a practice of shared responsibility for a common future. It is always the unfinished task of making social choices and working toward public goals that shapes our lives and the lives of others” (Colby et al. 2007, 25). Moreover, as historian Diane Ravitch observes, “A society that is racially and ethnically diverse requires, more than other societies, a conscious effort to build shared values and ideals among its citizenry” (Ravitch 2000).

The multifaceted dimensions of civic learning and democratic engagement necessary in the United States at this point in its history are suggested in Figure 1 below. It maps a contemporary definition of civic and democratic learning, underscoring the breadth and scope of preparation for knowledgeable citizenship that a highly diverse and globally engaged democracy requires. Stressing that point is one of the overriding recommendations in the National Call to Action presented in Chapter III. An earlier definition of “civics education” that stressed familiarity with the various branches of government and acquaintance with basic information about U.S. history is essential but no longer nearly enough. Americans still need to understand how their political system works and how to influence it. But they also need to understand the cultural and global contexts in which democracy is both deeply valued and deeply contested. Moreover, the full competencies in civic learning cannot be learned only by studying books; democratic knowledge and capabilities are honed through hands-on, face-to-face, active engagement in the midst of differing perspectives about how to address common problems that affect the well-being of the nation and the world.

The framing in Figure 1 is suggestive, not definitive. Much more work is required to develop even greater clarity about component elements of civic and democratic learning in this global century, and in Chapter III, we call for a new commitment to undertake that work. Nonetheless, the four categories of knowledge, skills, values, and action are widely shared, if sometimes differently emphasized, among civic educators and practitioners. Similarly, in the many analyses of civic learning cited in this report, the more specific learning outcomes listed under each of the four categories in Figure 1 appear with varying language but recurring consistency. The contemporary scope of civic knowledge and its application thus present a formidable yet exhilarating educational agenda of significant proportion. As such, it invites educators, scholars, and policy-makers to re-imagine how to creatively locate education for civic learning and democratic engagement at the heart of our nation’s educational systems and throughout the pipeline from school through college and beyond.

Figure 1: Components of 21st Century Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement


  • Familiarity with key democratic texts and universal democratic principles and with selected debates—in U.S. and other societies—concerning their applications

  • Historical and sociological understanding of several democratic movements, both in the U.S. and in other parts of the world

  • Understanding one’s sources of identity and their influence on civic values, assumptions, and responsibilities to a wider public

  • Knowledge of the diverse cultures, histories, values, and contestations that have shaped U.S. and other world societies

  • Exposure to multiple religious traditions and to alternative views about the relation between religion and government

  • Knowledge of the political systems that frame constitutional democracies and of political levers for influencing change


  • Critical inquiry, analysis, and reasoning

  • Quantitative reasoning

  • Gathering and evaluating multiple sources of evidence

  • Seeking, engaging, and being informed by multiple perspectives

  • Written, oral, and multi-media communication

  • Deliberation and bridge-building across differences

  • Collaborative decision-making

  • Ability to communicate in a second language


  • Respect for freedom and human dignity

  • Empathy

  • Open-mindedness

  • Tolerance

  • Justice

  • Equality

  • Ethical integrity

  • Responsibility to a larger good

Collective Action

  • Integration of knowledge, skills, and examined values in order to exercise informed action to address public problems

  • Moral discernment and behavior

  • Navigating political systems and processes, both formal and informal

  • Public problem-solving with diverse partners

  • Compromise, civility, and mutual respect

By investing more strategically to educate students fully along the four-part civic continuum, higher education can help ignite a more wide-spread civic renewal in America. When deep learning about complex questions with public consequences is coupled with college students’ energies and commitments, democratic culture is reinvigorated. Despite the label of disengagement often pinned to their t-shirts by others, evidence points to how a majority of the current generation of young people cares deeply about public issues. While many are alienated by polarized, partisan debates, corporate influence over policy making, and inefficient government processes, a significant portion of college students are interested in community service that leads to systemic social and political change. They also want to have more meaningful opportunities to discuss and address public issues (Kiesa 2007). In reshaping the college experience, we need to capitalize on the yearning, the inclination, and the commitments of such students.

In a 2009 survey of entering college students undertaken by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute (HERI), 35.8% responded that “becoming a community leader” was “essential” or “very important” and reported showing more commitment to treating each other as equal citizens when compared to older generations (Pryor et al. 2009). Moreover, when available, students in ever-increasing numbers are flocking to civic engagement opportunities in college often spurred by earlier volunteer work in the year before they entered college. In the same survey, 85.3% of entering first-year students responded “frequently” or “occasionally” to the item, “performed volunteer work” as high school seniors (Pryor et al. 2009). HERI data reveals that the pattern of service remains high in the college years as well: 81.2% of graduating seniors report being engaged in some form of community service during college (DeAngelo, pers. comm. 2011).

Another national study indicates that students want more from their colleges than they are getting in terms of institutional emphasis on contributing to the larger community. The longer the students stay in college, the wider the gap becomes between their endorsement of social responsibility as a goal of college and their assessment of whether the institution is providing opportunities for growth in this area (see Figure 2; Dey and Associates 2009).

Dey and Associates 2009

In that same study, the assessment by students of whether their campus values and promotes contributing to the larger community declines from first to senior year. While 44.8% of first-year students strongly agreed that their campus actively promoted awareness of U.S. social, political, and economic issues, only 34.3% of seniors strongly agreed with this statement. There was an even more striking discrepancy in the global arena. Among first-year students, 43.3% strongly agreed that their campus actively promoted awareness of global social, political, and economic issues, but only half that amount—22.9%—of seniors strongly agreed with this statement (Dey and Associates 2009, 6-7).
As A Crucible Moment will emphasize, community service is not necessarily the same as democratic engagement with others across differences to collectively solve public problems. Nor does service always establish a reciprocal partnership or lead to an analysis of systemic causes of a given issue. But service can be, and often is, the first step toward a more fully developed set of capacities and commitments to co-create with diverse others more vibrant communities to address significant national needs to promote economic and social stability. Chapter V will highlight some colleges and universities that can point the way to designing educational experiences that help students along the civic continuum. The challenge for colleges and universities in this next decade is to make such opportunities pervasive rather than random across the institution.

A College Education Must Offer More Than Workforce Training
Two and four-year colleges and universities have traditionally prepared students for citizenship and for economic life, and they must continue to do so—now more than ever. The democracy-enhancing flood of first-generation students to college has led appropriately to expectations that an associate or bachelor’s degree will secure a wider range of occupational choices and higher salaries. As the authors of Connecting Workforce Development and Civic Engagement: Higher Education as Public Good and Private Gain argue, workforce development and civic engagement “need not be separate or competing missions,” but “can be complementary visions” (Battistoni and Longo 2005, 7).

Similarly, many business leaders understand that education for the modern workforce should not displace education for citizenship. Charles Kolb, President of the non-partisan, business-led Committee on Economic Development, argues, “In addition to the obvious labor-force needs, having more Americans with higher levels of postsecondary achievement is vital to our civic health.  The heart of a vibrant democracy is educated, engaged citizens who are able to make choices for themselves, their families, their communities, and their country.  In this respect, the success of American postsecondary education is critical to the success of American democracy” (2011).

In stark contrast to the both/and approach of careers and citizenship that Kolb and this report each embrace, a troubling chorus of public pronouncements by some outside of higher education have reduced expectations for a college education to job preparation alone. Dominating the policy discussions are demands that college curricula and research match “labor market needs” and be tailored to “industry availability.” Still others call for an increase in “degree outputs,” much as they might ask a factory to produce more cars or coats.

The National Governors Association’s report, Degrees for What Jobs? Raising Expectations for Universities and Colleges in a Global Economy, serves as only one example of a policy discourse that focuses higher education directly and only on jobs. The report openly challenges higher education’s historic commitment to provide students with a broad liberal arts education (Sparks and Waits 2011). In U.S. higher education, of course, the liberal arts have been proudly owned as a form of college learning that prepares citizens for the responsibilities of freedom. Rejecting the value of what has differentiated U.S. higher education and made it the envy of the world, the report describes higher education’s function and future funding as dependent singly on promoting “economic goals,” “workforce preparation,” and “competitive advantage” (3).

Knowledgeable citizenship—U.S. and global—surely requires a grounding in history, U.S. and world cultures, the humanities, and the social sciences. It also requires what Martha Nussbaum has called cultivation of a “narrative imagination,” the capacity to enter into world views and experiences different from one’s own. These capacities are not incorporated into many career and technical programs but they certainly can be.

The call for educational reform cast only as a matter of workforce preparation mistakenly adopts a nineteenth-century industrial model for complex twenty-first-century needs. Reframing the public purpose of higher education in such instrumental ways will have grave consequences for America’s intellectual, social, and economic capital. Following such recommendations suggests colleges are no longer expected to educate leaders or citizens, only workers; they will not be called to invest in lifelong learning, but rather in industry-specific job training. Calling for colleges and universities to prepare students for careers and citizenship rather than only the former is especially important for students in community colleges. Forty-five percent of first-time undergraduates enroll in this sector, including more than 50% of African American, Latino, and Native American undergraduates (Giegerich 2006). Since the majority of these students do not transfer beyond the community college, it is all the more important that civic learning be integrated into the curriculum, including career training programs.

Why must the United States require its educational system to educate for careers and citizenship? Our founding fathers understood why very well. Higher education in a robust, diverse, and democratic country needs to cultivate in each of its graduates an open and curious mind, critical acumen, public voice, ethical and moral judgment, and the commitment to act collectively in public to achieve shared purposes. In stark contrast, higher education in a restrictive undemocratic country needs only to cultivate obedient and productive workers. As A Nation of Spectators astutely asserted, “We believe that economic productivity is important but it must not be confused with civic health” (11).
Let us be clear about our position. We believe that educating students for purposeful work in a dynamic, complex economy is more than ever an essential goal of higher education. However, we reject a zero-sum choice between the fullest preparation for economic success and education for citizenship. A Crucible Moment outlines a path that prepares students both for knowledgeable citizenship and for economic opportunity. As employers themselves make clear, the United States should not be forced to choose between preparing students for informed democratic citizenship and preparing students for successful college completion and career opportunities.

Public leaders who believe that the “economic agenda” of higher education is reducible to workforce training also fail to understand that there is a civic dimension to every field of study, including career and technical fields, as well as to every workplace. Industries and services have ethical and social responsibilities of their own, and, in a democracy, citizens and community partners routinely weigh in on such questions. Workers at all levels need to anticipate the civic implications of their choices and actions. The nation—and the world—have experienced disastrous results when civic consequences are ignored and only economic profit is considered.

Happily, there are some signature employment models that braid together high standards of work and civic responsibility. For example, more than 700 companies have produced corporate social responsibility reports in accordance with guidelines published by the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), which include environmental health, human rights, fair labor practices, product responsibility, economic sustainability, and community engagement dimensions (As You Sow n.d.; GRI 2011). Likewise, Siemens AG organizes its corporate citizenship activities in support of the UN Millennium Development Goals and the principles of the UN Global Compact. Part of this framework involves mobilizing employees to donate time to worthy causes through the company’s Caring Hands Program and recognizing teams of employee volunteers who undertake outstanding and innovative community service projects (Siemens AG n.d.). Similarly, the Timberland Company employs an “Earthkeepers philosophy” that guides product development, social and environmental performance in the supply chain, energy use, and community engagement. Community engagement is organized through the company’s 20-year-old Path of Service program, which offers employees paid time to serve in their local communities (Swartz 2011).

Even if they are not commonplace, in colleges today there are some nascent models that embed questions about civic responsibilities within career preparation. They point to the next level needed in civic campus work. California State University, Monterey Bay (CSUMB), for example, defines civic literacy as the “knowledge, skill and attitudes that students need to work effectively in a diverse society to create more just and equitable workplaces, communities, and social institutions” (Pollack 2011). The second service learning course at CSUMB that all students must complete is rooted in the student’s major. Every business student, for example, takes a Community Economic Development course that includes fifty hours of service to a community organization. Importantly, the overriding question that these students explore is “How can businesses balance the triple bottom lines of profit, people, and planet?” (Pollack 2011, 9). Similarly, for students in the School of Information Technology and Communications Design, the service learning course is constructed around the guiding question, “How has digital technology accentuated or alleviated historical inequalities in our community, and what is my responsibility for addressing the digital divide as a future IT professional?” (Pollack 2011, 9).

To strip out such probing civic questions from either higher education or the workplace is to contribute to the creation of the citizenless democracy that David Mathews so dreaded. A healthy democracy demands that civic dimensions in thinking and in working be cultivated, not ignored or suppressed.

In addition to serving as an engine of economic development, higher education is also a crucial incubator for fostering democratic voice, thought, and action. The shared capacities needed both in the modern workplace and in diverse democratic societies include: effective listening and oral communication, creative and critical thinking and problem solving, the ability to work effectively in diverse groups, agency and collaborative decision making, ethical analyses of complex issues, and intercultural understanding and perspective taking (Bowles 2002, cited by Battistoni and Longo 2005, 9–10).

Drawn from employer surveys about skills they are seeking in new employees, Figure 3 depicts the areas that employers wish higher education would emphasize more. The list closely parallels the framework of essential learning outcomes for liberally educated college graduates (Association of American Colleges and Universities 2011). Named as important stakeholders in education for democracy in Chapter III, employers can become influential allies in defining the more complex capabilities needed in today’s workplace that so many policy makers overlook. They have repeatedly testified that the skills for the 21st century workplace include history, global cultures, intercultural literacy, ethical judgment, and civic engagement. Technical skills are important, but for today’s economy, employers underscore that technical skills are not enough (Peter D. Hart Research Associates, Inc. 2007, 2008, 2010). Former Lockheed Martin CEO Augustine Norman has pointed out that students’ weak grasp of history actually threatens America’s economy as well as its freedom (Wall Street Journal, “The Education of Our Economy Needs, September 17, 2011). Narrow training is bad preparation for the economy as well as for democracy.

Civic Learning and College Completion
Along with urging a tighter connection between labor market needs and the college curriculum, policy leaders have also focused with new determination on raising the rates of college completion. But just as the choice between jobs and education for citizenship is a false dichotomy, so is the choice between graduation rates and education for citizenship. In fact, student participation in service learning, one of a number of civic pedagogies but one whose impact has been more widely studied, is correlated with outcomes that contribute to increased retention and completion rates to which numerous studies attest (Astin and Sax 1998; Gallini and Moelly 2003; Vogelgesang et al. 2002, Nigro and Farnsworth 2009; Brownell and Swaner 2010). A smaller, single-institution study at Kapi’olani Community College examined persistence among 660 students who completed service-learning assignments in 2010-2011. Robert W. Franco, Director, Office for Institutional Effectiveness, noted, “The course success and fall-to-spring persistence rates of the 660 students were 20 percent higher than for all students. These results replicate similar findings for more than 600 students completing service-learning assignments in 2009-2010. Service-learning students demonstrated learning gains in applying course concepts to community contexts, communicating to diverse audiences, recognizing and responding to community problems, and clarifying personal, academic, and career goals” (Robert W. Franco, pers. comm. 2011).

Other studies show service learning’s positive impact on other factors that raise the likelihood that students will stay in college. Three of these factors include career development (Eyler et al. 2001), satisfaction with college (Astin and Sax 1998; Berson and Younkin 1998), and deepening students’ connections with faculty (Astin and Sax 1998; Gray et al. 1998; Eyler and Giles 1999). It is well established that students’ closeness with faculty is a key factor in increasing college success (Astin 1993) and persistence (Pascarella and Terenzini 2005). Unfortunately, service learning remains optional rather than expected for most college students. More than three quarters of community college students have never taken a course that includes a service learning component, and nearly half (48.6%) of those completing a B.A. degree report that they have never taken a course that included service learning (Franke et al. 2010).

Despite clear evidence, then, that civic learning in college is compatible with preparation for the modern workforce and improved graduation rates, the dominant external policy discourse about higher education “reform” is silent on education for democracy. Does the civic mission of higher education in our increasingly multicultural democracy need to be scuttled to achieve better jobs for students or higher graduation rates? It does not. And it must not.

It is time to bring two national priorities - career preparation and increased access and completion rates - together in a more comprehensive vision with a third national priority: fostering informed, engaged, responsible citizens. Higher education is a space where that triad of priorities can cohere and flourish.

Central Argument of this Report

A socially cohesive and economically vibrant U.S. democracy and a viable, just global community require informed, engaged, open-minded, and socially responsible people committed to the common good and practiced in “doing” democracy. In a divided and unequal world, education—from K-12 through college and beyond—can open up opportunities to develop each person’s full talents, equip graduates to contribute to economic recovery and innovation, and cultivate responsibility to a larger common good.

Achieving that goal will require that civic learning and democratic engagement not be sidelined but central, not an afterthought but an anticipated and integral part of every student’s K-12 and college education. To clarify: We are not suggesting that colleges implement a single required civics course. That would hardly be sufficient.

Rather, we are calling for far more ambitious standards for colleges and universities that can be measured over time to indicate whether institutions—and their students—are becoming more civic-minded. This report therefore urges every college and university to foster a civic ethos that governs campus life, make civic literacy a goal for every graduate, integrate civic inquiry within majors and general education, and advance civic action as lifelong practice (see Figure 4 for specific indicators in each of the four areas). In doing so, we are seeking a more comprehensive vision to guide the 21st century formulation of education for democratic citizenship on college and university campuses. As this report suggests, investing in this broader vision promises to cultivate more informed, engaged, and responsible citizens while also contributing to economic vitality, more equitable and flourishing communities, and the overall civic health of the nation.

Figure 4

What Would a Civic-Minded Campus Look Like?

Civic ethos governing campus life

The infusion of democratic values into the customs and habits of everyday practices, structures, and interactions; the defining character of the institution and those in it that emphasizes open-mindedness, civility, the worth of each person, ethical behaviors, and concern for the well-being of others; a spirit of public-mindedness that influences the goals of the institution and its engagement with local and global communities.

Civic literacy as a goal for every student

The cultivation of foundational knowledge about fundamental principles and debates about democracy expressed over time, both within the United States and in other countries; familiarity with several key historical struggles, campaigns, and social movements undertaken to achieve the full promise of democracy; the ability to think critically about complex issues and to seek and evaluate information about issues that have public consequences.

Civic inquiry integrated within the majors and general education

The practice of inquiring about the civic dimensions and public consequences of a subject of study; the exploration of the impact of choices on different constituencies and entities, including the planet; the deliberate consideration of differing points of views; the ability to describe and analyze civic intellectual debates within one’s major or areas of study.

Civic action as lifelong practice

The capacity and commitment both to participate constructively with diverse others and to work collectively to address common problems; the practice of working in a pluralistic society and world to improve the quality of people’s lives and the sustainability of the planet; the ability to analyze systems in order to plan and engage in public action; the moral and political courage to take risks to achieve a greater public good.

The Call to Action outlined in Chapter III is designed to make civic learning and democratic engagement—U.S. and global—an animating national priority. It recommends building that foundation for responsible citizenship by making such learning an expectation for all students whether in schools, colleges, community colleges, or universities. Everyone has a role to play in building the knowledge, skills, values, and civic actions that all students need. Chapter III offers specific recommendations from the field on how to begin to outline both general and localized action plans. The Call to Action identifies some of the multiple courses of collective, coordinated actions that can be undertaken by a broad coalition if we hope to transform civic learning and democratic engagement from aspiration to reality.
A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future therefore sets forth a National Call to Action that refuses to sideline civic learning and democratic engagement. It argues for restoring the centrality of education for democratic engagement to its intended high standing and charts a direction that keeps sharply in view both the reality of global interdependence and the yearning for greater freedom and self-direction expressed by peoples around the world. Above all, it argues for ensuring that all college students devote time and effort to the kinds of “real-world” challenges that every society confronts, where civic knowledge and judgment must shape public choices.

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