By Jessica Weasner
I often take for granted that educating students for active citizenship should be a core element of American higher education. I have spent my entire professional career as a student affairs practitioner working in the field of community service and civic engagement. My day to day work has focused on increasing students’ awareness of social issues, encouraging involvement in their communities, and developing the necessary civic skills to mobilize for social change. I gravitated towards this work because of my own personal experiences as a college student. Thus, for me, college has always felt like the natural place to prepare students for citizenship.
Indeed, one of the foundational goals of the American higher education system was to prepare our citizens with the knowledge and skills necessary to sustain our democracy. Yet, research tells us that few American students today consider the attainment of a civic education or building of civic skills as a goal of their educational experience (Hatcher, 2011). While more and more institutions of higher education are including goals related to citizenship development in the mission or vision statements, a much higher value is often placed on the future employment and financial success of our students. Rather than viewing the entirety of the educational experience as an opportunity to prepare students for civic life, we relegate it to a single office on campus. Community service and civic engagement practitioners often feel (rightly so) that our work is undervalued by our institutions. Resources are limited and schedules are jam packed. It can be overwhelming and discouraging. Sharing our stories can seem like a luxury we don’t have time for. I know that it wasn’t on my priority list.
The relational conversations I have taken part in as part of my work with the JDS Democracy in Education Initiative have been encouraging; demonstrating that there are passionate and dedicated individuals and organizations across the country working to revitalize our civic mission. Our shared stories of why we chose to engage in this work professionally remind me that for many of us, this work is deeply personal. They are also a reminder that we are all part of a movement dedicated to preparing students for citizenship and our network provides a multitude of resources and opportunities to support us in this challenging work.
One such resource is Campus Compact, the first national organization dedicated to educating students for citizenship by providing resources and support for institutions of higher education (Hollander & Hartley, 2009). Campus Compact was born out of the renewed interest in the public purpose of higher education in the 1980s. During this time, many campuses saw the institutionalization of civic engagement and service learning. Recently, they took note of the new and increasingly challenges facing our democracy such as civic apathy and greater political polarization. On its 30th Anniversary, Campus Compact called for the Presidents and Chancellors of its member campuses to publicly recommit themselves to the advancement of democracy via an action statement. The statement called for campuses to “redouble our efforts with a renewed commitment to preparing students for democratic citizenship, building partnerships for change, and reinvigorating higher education for the public good” (Campus Compact, 2016). Over 450 institutions signed the document, this time explicitly committing themselves to developing a written Civic Action Plan for their campuses. The planning process has provided an opportunity for many campuses to engage in conversations about civic education and how they can create a culture where it is integrated throughout the institution. Campus Compact has made these plans available on their website. Additionally, Campus Compact has created Knowledge Hubs, where member campuses can share their stories, including best practices and key resources. These plans and knowledge hubs are a great opportunity to learn more about what institutions of higher education are doing to advance this work. It is inspiring to see the work taking place across the country.
Hatcher, J. A. (2011). Assessing civic knowledge and engagement. New Directions for Institutional Research, 2011(149), 81-92.
Hollander, E., & Hartley, M. (2009). Introductory essay: Reimagining the civic imperative of higher education. A different kind of politics: Readings on the role of higher education in democracy, 1-14.
Campus Compact. (2016). Campus Compact thirtieth anniversary action statement of presidents and chancellors. Retrieved from https://kdp0l43vw6z2dlw631ififc5-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Campus-Compact-Action-Statement.pdf