The Vital Role of Higher Education in Civic Skill Building
Throughout my career civic engagement has been a core component of my work and my mission. I was strongly influenced by reading Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone. Putnam's thesis, that social capital has been in decline for decades and that institutions throughout society should help rebuild it, has been a guiding light for me for two decades. I was fortunate from the beginning of my career as a higher education faculty member to be involved in the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) American Democracy Project (ADP). Through ADP my commitment to civic engagement has deepened and grown along with my career in higher education.
What is civic engagement?
Many of us who participate in ADP and civic engagement activities use Thomas Ehrlich's definition, “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 non-political processes. “
My civic engagement commitment
Civic engagement, whether it be curricular or co-curricular, is a vital high-impact educational practice. From learning how to respectfully disagree during an argument to critiquing ideological bias in news reports, advocating for issues of public good to running for office, well-deployed and strategic civic engagement activities will help students become better citizen leaders regardless of the level of their eventual commitment to the American democratic experiment. I use my classes, informal leadership, and my official role as Director of Civic Engagement to advance those skills in students.
Civic engagement is a scholarly pursuit as well. I have produced scholarship of engagement myself and in collaborative projects, including regular presentations at the ADP annual meeting and publications. Furthermore I have included credit for engaged scholarship in faculty evaluation in my multiple department chair roles.
Universities are excellent loci for intervention to improve civic efficacy. Students who participate in civic learning co-curricular activities are more likely to succeed in their careers as well as be active citizens. A vibrant civic engagement and leadership culture on campus will reinforce in-class learning and prepare students to participate at whatever level they choose in political activity in the future.