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Civic Engagement

Summary and Keywords

There is a body of evidence that suggests that young Americans are disengaged from communal life. Since the late 1980s, college students have been described as materialistic, self-absorbed, and self-interested, acting without regard for community interests. Scholars consider the “me generation” as symptomatic of an eroding democratic civic culture characterized by growing apathy, resentment, even anger. This trend continues today. In order to address this, proponents of higher education have made their attempts to develop civic engagement in young minds. Civic engagement refers to activities within a community, though in the academic setting, the definition becomes much more complex. There is a belief that through participation in a community, students will develop capacities that ultimately lead them to become more active citizens, which in turn benefits not only themselves but also the community. However, higher education’s recommitment to developing students’ civic engagement should be informed by a clear notion of what civic engagement entails. In addition, a certain amount of factual knowledge is a prerequisite for becoming an engaged citizen, as civic learning involves students coming to understand the democratic processes of a community, its history, the problems it faces, and the richness of its diversity. And civic learning opportunities can be taught both in and outside of the classroom, as co-curricular learning opportunities, projects embedded in a class, or as a requirement of a general education curriculum.

Keywords: civic engagement, civic learning, civic learning opportunities, communal life, assessment model, institutional imperatives, democratic civic culture, higher education


Civic engagement is the academic idea du jour. Its inclusion in most universities’ mission statements places it at the heart of what higher education should aspire to instill within its student body. Yet the myriad of definitions relating to civic engagement and the diverse practices contending to develop this capacity in our students indicate that civic engagement may be all things to all people.

In its broadest sense, civic engagement means activities with a community. Two popular definitions include:

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.

(Erhlich 2000:vi)

People participating together for deliberation and collective action within an array of interests, institutions and networks, developing civic identity, and involving people in governance processes.

(Cooper 2005)

Inherent in the above definitions is a belief that through participation in a community students will develop capacities that ultimately lead them to become more active citizens, which in turn benefits not only themselves but also the community. The basis of this view is embedded in the “republican tradition” (Walker 2000; Dalhgren 2006), traced to de Tocqueville's (1969) observation, in the 1830s, that involvement in American public life was seen not just as a duty, but as something offering its own personal rewards and that participating in the democratic process not only connects people to each other, but develops individual abilities that otherwise would remain unfulfilled.

As education pioneer John Dewey (1916) taught us, democracy does not happen automatically, it is a learned activity. Active participation in a democracy requires civic virtues and the cultivation of individual dispositions that are important for the success of the community. In this conception, the primary purpose of civic engagement, and higher education's role in promoting it, is to produce a new generation that has the knowledge, the skills, and the dispositions of private and public character that support a democracy (Prentice 2007).

At times the university's role in civic engagement promotion competes with other roles that a university plays, which include preparing students with the knowledge and skills they need for a career or promoting the habits of mind that define an “educated person.” Some worry that higher education recently has been preoccupied with a career-oriented role at the expense of educating students about civic participation and responsibilities (White et al. 2007), which should be at the heart of what it means to be an educated person in a democratic society. There is a call for the academy to recommit itself “to educate its students for a life beyond career and beyond merely a life of the mind” (Caputo 2005:6).

However, higher education's recommitment to developing students’ civic engagement should be informed by a clear notion of what civic engagement entails. A review of the literature points to differing notions of what constitutes civic engagement, as well as a wide-ranging set of civic capacities that should be developed in our students for civic engagement to occur and be sustained.

Defining Engagement

The apparent lack of civic engagement among youth has led many to despair. There is a body of evidence that suggests that young Americans are disengaged from communal life. Since the late 1980s, college students have been described as materialistic, self-absorbed, and self-interested, acting without regard for community interests. Scholars consider the “me generation” as symptomatic of an eroding democratic civic culture characterized by growing apathy, resentment, even anger (Barber and Battistoni 1993:235). This trend continues today. Many expected a reawakening of civic engagement after the 9/11 tragedy. During a time when one would expect active engagement from a population under attack, a 2002 report found that, although young Americans showed an increase in favorability toward “government action” and were “more socially tolerant” than older generations, they were also less attentive to public affairs, less involved in politics, and less trustful of others. They voted at lower rates, signed fewer petitions, and were less likely to join the ranks of political parties (Keeter et al. 2002). A more recent report found that close to three out of five young Americans were “disengaged,” meaning they could not cite two or more civic or political engagement activities that they partook in. They also had low levels of political knowledge and had lost confidence in the government (Lopez et al. 2006). This is disheartening. The profound “civic fellowship” (Elshtain 2004) that Americans experienced after 9/11 did not manifest in an increase in civic participation. One author explains: “Terrorist attacks and the commitment of US forces to armed combat abroad may have aroused the usual patriotic and communal feelings, but the outbreak of this war could not suddenly remake the institutional face of American civic democracy” (Gaines 2002:540), which, as Putnam (2000) depicted in Bowling Alone, lacked membership in civic voluntary associations that were once at the center of American public life. People coming of age may have felt the need to act but did not have the civic associations through which to do so.

Recent data show that not much has changed. On average, 18- to 29-year-olds today are less likely to engage in the political process and most are ignorant of what is going on in government and public affairs. Members of this cohort feel removed from the political process. When asked if they agreed with the statement “It's my duty as a citizen to always vote,” more than half did not (Pew Research Center 2007). Although one study found an estimated 4 to 5 percent increase in youth voting in the last presidential election (CIRCLE 2008), one can attribute this increase to the immense draw of a youthful and charismatic political candidate. The study also reported that all youth showed overwhelming support for the Democratic candidate Barack Obama. Time will tell whether this increase in youth voting rates will continue into the future.

These findings concern civic engagement scholars because participation in civic associations develops skills of cooperation, a sense of shared responsibility for collective endeavors, and a means of engaging with broader political systems. Social capital, the resources that people derive from their relationships with others in these voluntary associations, is built most effectively through civic engagement and active citizenship (Putnam 2000). If this is absent, then shared values and objectives, which produce high levels of social trust and cooperation, will disappear. This in turn will lead to greater disengagement from the civic realm.

From this vantage point, the challenge to civic engagement today is immense. The moment for revitalization of civic democracy in the wake of 9/11 seems to have dissipated (Skocpol 2002). As one scholar notes: “Issues of security and privacy, immigration and citizenship, wars and foreign policy and the environment and economy deserve thoughtful analysis and action on our campuses […] Nonetheless, on many campuses it feels too quiet – there is a sense of disengagement or of academic business as usual” (O'Connor 2006:58).

Broadening the Concept of Civic Engagement

This negative assessment of youth civic engagement has caused alarm bells to ring throughout the academy. Some have claimed that “democracy is at risk” and that American citizens have endangered the republic by failing to educate new generations of citizens about civic responsibility. For instance, “elders have told new generations that they have rights and freedoms but have done little to help them understand what is required to protect those liberties, both for themselves and for future citizens” (White et al. 2007). If one defines civic engagement as political involvement – whether as voting, membership in civic groups, or activity in traditional political party structures – then American college students are indeed disengaged and the academy needs to double its efforts to instill a sense of civic engagement in our youth. But, if one agrees with scholars who contend that civic competence is not exclusively derived from political society and that “non-political contexts of civil society can have a bearing on how people engage and manage in political contexts” (Dalhgren 2006:273), then we begin to see a different, less pessimistic picture of youth engagement.

How engagement is assessed depends on what activities are considered relevant for the development of civic capacity. One scholar asks, “Does civics incorporate governmental and non-governmental activities, or does it mean public life as distinct from government?” (O'Connor 2006). Some analysts argue that personal action has replaced collective action as the means of fulfilling the tasks and responsibilities of citizenship and perhaps then, younger cohorts are “not disengaged, they are differently engaged” (Prentice 2007:136). For instance, a broader definition of civic engagement, which encompasses social aspects of engagement, would label American youth as highly engaged given their volunteer activity and grassroots organizing. They are disengaged from traditional political activity because they feel less politically efficacious, but are highly engaged in arenas that have personal meaning to them. These activities have the ability to build social capital, leading to collaborative efforts and possibly political change (Campbell 2000). The job of educators is to harness this potential in a civic learning direction.

Although every generation possesses unique characteristics that distinguish it from the others, social commentators contend that there is something truly different about “Generation Txt” (Rheingold 2002), “Net Generation” (Rosen in press) or “Generation Next” (Adams and Carfagna 2006; Pew Research Center 2007). This generation has come of age shaped by an unprecedented revolution in technology and dramatic events both at home and abroad. They use technology and the Internet to connect with people in new and distinctive ways and frequent social networking sites, such as Facebook or MySpace (Pew Research Center 2007). In a recent study, Bennett (2008) argues that the “dutiful citizen” of the past who equated citizenship with duty and obligation has been replaced by the “actualizing citizen” of today who favors loosely networked activism to address issues that reflect personal values. The characteristics of the new actualizing citizen are: a higher sense of individual purpose; a focus on community volunteering and transnational activism; a mistrust of politicians or “politics”; and a higher level of participation in media culture. The actualizing citizen favors loose networks of community actions sustained by friendships and peer relations and mediated by interactive information technologies. Rosenau (1997; 1998; 2007) has argued that individuals have undergone a “skill revolution,” which makes them increasingly more competent at assessing where they fit in international affairs and how their behavior can be aggregated into significant collective outcomes. Given this, the challenge for civic education today is for educators and scholars to recognize the profound shift in citizenship styles that is occurring nationwide and leverage it. For instance, candidate Obama clearly understood the citizenship style of the “txt generation” more fully than his opponents. He constructed speeches that played well on YouTube and he used the Internet to organize support by creating 8000 web-based affinity groups (Ambinder 2008). This social networking strategy was also successful at getting out the youth vote, as mentioned above.

The experiences of civically engaged college students in Campus Compact's “Raise Your Voice” campaign can be illustrative on this point. As societal cynicism and detachment were identified as factors leading to student disengagement, one strategy pursued by the students “to engage the disengaged” was to partake in “relational organizing,” which they identified as a unique and powerful tool. Social networking through interactive information technologies was the preferred method for recruitment and retention to address issues that were self-defined rather than defined by traditional media outlets or politicians (Germond et al. 2006).

There is increasing evidence that new generations of Americans may define the civic realm differently than their grandparents. In the past, “national citizenship became a key structuring framework for action, since the legitimate collective good was defined in national terms, and citizenship actions were directed towards this collective good” (Tambini 2001:197). Consequently, civic engagement has focused on educating citizens of the state. In an era of accelerating globalization, however, the nature of citizenship is undergoing transformation. Analysts point to a world of increasing transnationalism and deterritorialization that contributes to new meanings of identity and citizenship as the nation-state declines (Tambini 2001). Given that the interests of states and peoples are not necessarily in sync and that the “multidimensional identities of the world's people are not adequately represented by the uni-dimensional idea of nationality” (Otto 1996:126), we may find that “networked individuals” will place demands at all levels of polity (Rosenau 2007). As one scholar notes, “The tenacious activity of NGOs in the international sphere, despite rigid institutional barriers, reflects the power that people have as citizens” (Otto 1996:128).

These trends have led many to argue that we are witnessing the emergence of forms of citizenship beyond the nation. Various names have been given to this phenomenon: post-national (Tambini 2001), cosmopolitan (Delanty 2000), or world citizenship. Whatever the name, reconceptualizing citizenship has become increasingly salient in the wake of globalization (Hayden 2005).

In sum, one can argue that the age of the nation-state has yielded to the age of the individual. Analyzing the basic roles people occupy in their family, community, and society, including the wider world, will mark this new era. Students may define their community at different levels. Our concern is in educating students for the twenty-first century where these multi-faceted community connections exist. Thus, we may see the manifestation of transnational or cosmopolitan conceptions of citizenship where national belonging or geographic locals do not determine the civic realm for our students (Dower and Williams 2002; Hayden 2005).

Deepening Civic Engagement

Although the above discussion brings hope and renewal to the cause of student civic engagement, caution is in order. Today's students may fail to understand that social engagement is not the same as political effectiveness. Deepening the concept of civic engagement are scholars concerned with empowering students to do the “work of democracy.” In this conception, civic engagement becomes “civic agency,” which promotes activity to change political and social structures of society with justice and equity in mind (Knefelkamp and Schneider 1997; Boyte 2008). An engaged citizen is participatory, moral and “one who can conceptualize the relational aspects of self and society and who seeks to extend equity and justice in all aspects of daily life” (Knefelkamp and Schneider 1997:340). Boyte (2008:10) explains: “Civic agency emphasizes not only individual action but also the collective capacity to act on common challenges across differences.”

Students need to develop the skills and capacities for “self-reliant public action.” In this conception the emphasis is not only on individual action but on a collective capacity for the community to act on common challenges in an open and fluid environment where there is no script. The broadened notion of civic engagement expanded to the social sphere misses the most important aspect of being a member of a community, the knowledge one needs in order to change how communities live. The narrow and broad conceptions of civic engagement neglect the dynamics of power and politics.

Whichever definition of engagement is embraced, most scholars can agree that we need to develop capacities within our students so they can become responsible members of the community, whether the community is my school, my neighborhood, my nation, or my world. Green (2003:7), for instance, argues that “an undergraduate education […] must produce graduates who will be productive contributors to civic life both locally and globally and understand that the fates of nations, individuals, and the planet are inextricably linked.” In College Learning for the New Global Century (2007), the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) identifies the fostering of personal and social responsibilities, including civic knowledge and engagement locally and globally, as an essential learning outcome for students. “In a democracy that is diverse, globally engaged, and dependent on citizen responsibility, all students need an informed concern for the larger good because nothing less will renew our fractured and diminished commons” (AAC&U 2008:13).

How should the academy fulfill this promise? It begins with a commitment to building our students’ capacity for engagement. That development is what constitutes “civic learning” and includes the knowledge, skills, and values to be an effective communal member (Saltmarsh 2005:53).

Civic Learning

Civic Knowledge

A certain amount of factual knowledge is a prerequisite for becoming an engaged citizen. “Simply put, while one can debate the amount or content of information a person ‘needs’ to know, it is difficult to imagine either an educated student or an engaged citizen who is unfamiliar with the substance, key actors, institutions, and processes of politics” (Carpini and Keeter 2000:176). Civic learning involves students coming to understand the democratic processes of a community, its history, the problems it faces, and the richness of its diversity (Ehrlich 1999). Having civic knowledge enhances support of democratic values, promotes political participation, helps citizens to understand better the impact of public policy on their interests, gives citizens the framework they need to understand civic affairs, and reduces generalized mistrust and fear of public life (Galston 2001). In general, a working knowledge of the institutions and processes of society demystifies the political process and leads to enhanced efficacy and, hopefully, involvement of its citizens.

Civic Skills

What skills do our students need to learn to be engaged and active members of a community? Academia should promote student acquisition of skills that are essential to the art of political participation in whatever form that takes. Critical thinking skills are the most important single example of a vital civic skill because they allow students to assess the authenticity, accuracy, and worth of knowledge claims, beliefs, or arguments (Barber and Battistoni 1993). Learning to differentiate between fact (statements which can be proved true), and opinion (statements that express judgments or ideas) enables citizens to critically evaluate what they read, hear, view, and write (Novelli 1999).

Citizens of a democracy need communication skills to put forth opinions and arguments for continuous debate. If not presented in an effective manner, great ideas may be of little value. Hence, a democratic society relies upon citizens’ abilities to communicate effectively. Elements of a persuasive speech include describing a situation, giving the audience a complication or problem, and then offering a solution and suggesting an action. Developing careful listening skills will ensure the message is heard.

A democratic society is one in which citizens interact with each other and learn from each other (Dewey 1916; Ehrlich 1999). Participatory skills of citizenship in democracy include interacting with other citizens to promote personal and common interests for collective action. “Collaborative learning is not only a pedagogy designed to encourage the development of the skills required to be a productive team member, it is also an important tool for training students to enter a democratic society in which citizens interact with each other, learn from each other, disagree with each other, grow with each other, and work together to make their communities more than the sum of its parts” (Ehrlich 1999:246). While working in groups, students also develop compromise skills. An added pedagogical benefit of practicing these skills is that students working in small groups tend to learn more of what is taught and retain it longer than when the same content is presented in other instructional formats. Students who work in collaborative groups also appear more satisfied with their classes (Beckman 1990).

Democracy requires citizens to identify community problems and to work communally to resolve them. Adopting a problem-based learning (PBL) instructional method can teach students civic skills. PBL challenges students to “learn to learn,” working cooperatively in groups to seek solutions to real world problems. Students access information and resources, apply knowledge, and exercise skills needed for the problem solving to occur. The inherent “messiness” of PBL mirrors real world conditions that confront citizens in the public arena (Gordon 2003:3). These problems are used to engage students’ curiosity and initiate learning of the subject matter. PBL prepares students to think critically and analytically, and to find and use appropriate learning resources (Duch et al. 2001).

Civic Dispositions

It is hoped that by gaining the knowledge of democratic processes and learning the skills that promote democratic processes students will develop civic dispositions such as civility, courage, integrity, concern, tolerance, and curiosity, and absorb civic values such as justice, inclusion, and participation (Saltmarsh 2005:53). “Students can develop their moral voice and sense of community as well as instill a sense of efficacy and the ability to lead” (Ehrlich 1999:245).

In sum, the goal of civic learning is to “develop motivation to engage in democratic processes despite the trend against engagement, skills of civic engagement, substantive knowledge about issues facing their community, and a set of values that fosters political engagement as a means of serving one's community” (Ehrlich 1999:247).

How Are Civic Learning Opportunities Delivered?

Civic learning opportunities can happen in and outside the classroom. A recent monograph Civic Engagement at the Center highlights models of civic learning implemented at 77 campuses across the country (Hoy and Meisel 2008). These experiences can happen as co-curricular learning opportunities, projects embedded in a class, or be required as part of a general education curriculum.

Proponents of embedding civic learning within a general education curriculum or within a required university course argue that “civic literacy” is analogous to mathematical, informational, or scientific literacy and that it must be required of all undergraduates. For instance, the Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University is a university-wide initiative that creates a “virtual college that would integrate values and skills of active citizenship in all fields of study” (Hollister et al. 2006:40). The Center for Democracy and Citizenship at the University of Minnesota is partnering with the American Democracy Project to integrate citizenship into core curricula. A recent study of the Participating in Democracy Project suggests that utilizing general education as the institutional foundation for an integrated, multidisciplinary learning environment can achieve an increase in civic engagement.

While the institutionalization of civic learning in a whole curriculum may be worthwhile, a more modest approach is to work within a single class format. Many of us already teach course content that illuminates knowledge of the civic, such as the processes and institutions involved in democratic decision making either at the local or global level.

Another strategy could be to structure our classrooms to model democratic practices. This method explicitly treats the classroom as a site of civic engagement in its own right, acknowledging that although the classroom is primarily a learning environment it also functions as a social and political system. A typical classroom is stratified with an authoritarian instructor at the center as the producer of the syllabus and the assignments and the determination of grades. In this atmosphere students are passive and disengaged from meaningful participation in the course content, structure, and assessment. A “democratic classroom,” on the other hand, encourages students to “participate directly in the governance of a course and, in the process, redefine the relations of power and authority that have traditionally characterized the classroom as a social and political system” (Spiezio et al. 2005:273). Students have opportunities to participate collectively in the decision making process from syllabi construction and assessment procedures to classroom protocols (Meade and Weaver 2004). The design of the course and conduct in the classroom is to help students “take personal responsibility for their learning, appreciate the value of participating in the life of a community, and develop a sense of confidence, efficacy, and empowerment” (Spiezio et al. 2005:274). The Democratic Classroom approach begins to move away from the cognitive knowledge of political and civic systems and toward learning the “doing of democracy” through active participation (Kirlin 2002:571; Saltmarsh 2005).

Although much civic learning can take place within the classroom, many educators argue that if the goal is to prepare students for a lifetime of engaged citizenship, we can do this more effectively if we integrate classroom learning with direct and substantial “experiential learning in the larger world where practical political decision making and democratic deliberation occur” (Ehrlich 1999:245). The best way to achieve civic learning outcomes is to structure learning environments where students critically evaluate information, express opinions, tolerate divergent viewpoints, and collectively work on community related problems. This affords students an opportunity to “collaboratively explore contested issues in contemporary society, and […] test, experientially as well as intellectually, the societal consequences of different policies and courses of action” (Knefelkamp and Schneider 1997:341).

Many in the educational community have embraced service learning as the primary way to accomplish this goal (Barber 1992; Barber and Battistoni 1993; Patrick 2000; Kirlin 2002). Thus, there is an extensive literature devoted to defining service learning and identifying ways to structure this experience to achieve civic learning outcomes. One of the most cited definitions of service learning explains it as “an educational methodology which combines community service with explicit academic learning objectives, preparation for community work, and deliberate reflection” (Gelmon et al. 2001:v) to produce an enhanced sense of civic responsibility. The central objective of service learning is the development of lifelong habits of engagement and democratic citizenship (Carpini et al. 2000).

Examples of service learning opportunities for students are many. For instance, place-bound students in a political theory course explore issues of transnational justice by supporting an international food drive to neighborhoods in Nogales, Mexico (Cabrera and Anastasi 2008). In an upper-level international relations course students provide aid to a Bosnian refugee family and analyze global social justice issues (Patterson 2000). International service learning provides a powerful dynamic between direct cultural exposure and academic learning (Sternberger et al. 2005). An added benefit to this approach is that “international contexts are also likely to foster greater problem-solving and critical thinking on the part of students, due to the ways in which culture, language, religion, and beliefs are under constant challenge in foreign settings” (Berry 1990:304–5).

Some find that participation in service learning experiences correlates positively with academic development (Billig 2002) because it expands on what students learn through lectures and readings (Ehrlich 1999:245). However, service learning experiences, in and of themselves, do not advance civic learning specifically. A historical analysis of service learning in higher education sheds some light on why this is the case. What began as an “anti-institutional program” in the 1960s with an inherent civic learning component was repackaged in the 1990s as an “institutionally integrated pedagogical method” focused on student “learning.” This transformation has led service learning to be widely embraced by the academic community, but a result is that it may have dampened its inherent focus on social responsibility and civic engagement, the very goal we desire (Lounsbury and Pollack 2001).

A review of the literature on service learning reflects this concern. Some scholars find that service learning does indeed promote civic values and citizenship related issues (Hunter and Brisbin 2000; Perry and Katula 2001; Kim and Billig 2003; Smith 2006; Prentice 2007), whereas others report mixed results (Shumer and Belbas 1996; Parker-Gwin and Mabry 1998; Campbell 2000; Strage 2000; Kirlin 2002). These studies tell us that introducing service learning into a curriculum will not automatically lead to increased civic engagement or student learning. The service learning experience must incorporate an intentional focus on instilling the civic skills and dispositions discussed above and on allowing students to reflect upon their experiences. In essence, there must be civic learning in service learning for civic engagement to occur (Ehrlich 1999). Two mistakes are often made in service learning programs that inhibit the development of our students’ civic skills and dispositions; these are: over-structuring the service learning experience, and focusing exclusively on the volunteer aspects of service learning.

Students need to learn and practice civic skills during the service learning experience through the process of designing and organizing their activities themselves. Often, service learning programs are too structured and deny students opportunities for problem based learning. As one scholar notes, teachers may organize students too much “taking the fun (and civic skill learning) out of the effort” (Kirlin 2002:573). Opportunities should be available for students to organize themselves, decide on objectives, and collectively make decisions. The educator's role should be to help students identify the problem that exists, who they will interact with in the community to solve the problem, and what project they will undertake. In essence, educators will practice civic virtues by letting students “have a voice” in the service learning project (Morgan and Streb 2001; Temple 2003). Kirlin (2002:573) explains: “Giving students the opportunity to identify fellow students with similar concerns and then to decide what they will do about it is an important first step. Underlying this relatively simple step are several skills including voicing one's opinion, expressing interests, identifying like-minded individuals, and reaching consensus about actions.” In this scenario, educators will facilitate civic learning by becoming a “guide on the side” who asks important questions, and provides logistical and emotional support and encouragement, but not prepackaged experiences.

Some meaningful educators inhibit the development of civic dispositions by equating volunteerism with service learning. Barber and Battistoni (1993:235) convincingly argue that by segregating service from civic responsibility it becomes “associated with altruism or charity – a supererogatory activity of good men and women rather than an obligatory activity of responsible citizens.” Of course, service learning does share volunteer aspects with community service, but for service learning to promote civic engagement the latter has to explicitly link to civic learning curricula (Eyler and Giles 1999; Carpini and Keeter 2000; Hepburn et al. 2000; Battistoni 2002). Thus, the civic view of service learning “emphasizes mutual responsibility and interdependence of rights and responsibilities, and it focuses not on altruism but on enlightened self-interest” (Barber and Battistoni 1993:237). By understanding that the relationship with the community partner is one of mutual interdependence, students gain the perspective that the “community” is not those with problems but is a group to which we all belong. For service learning to promote civic engagement, community problems should be mutually defined and service learning projects should be identified and developed in collaboration with a community partner. Students should also learn about and reflect upon the community context in which the service is provided.

Problems to be Addressed


As this essay demonstrates, there is an extensive literature on civic engagement indicating a wide following in higher education. However, those who argue for a continuation of higher education's role in promoting civic learning and engagement mostly argue this from a position of moral imperative rather then empirical evidence. As one scholar warns, “In a field that has been long on rhetoric, and short on hard evidence of results, it is imperative that we demonstrate measurable impacts” (Hollister et al. 2006:52). This is especially true in resource-scarce environments where competing programs need to demonstrate their benefits or gather data for program improvement. Consequently, what is needed is a scholarly approach to assessing civic engagement (Lynton 1996).

This is easier said than done. Developing an assessment model of civic learning and engagement depends upon delivery method. It will be much easier to demonstrate the mastery of civic knowledge within the classroom setting and much more difficult to assess civic learning in service learning environments where there is complexity due to its community based focus, which addresses multiple constituencies simultaneously. There are attempts at furthering the cause of assessment in service learning by providing a handbook for practical methods and tools for assessment planning, design, and implementation (Gelmon et al. 2001; Battistoni 2002), but much more work needs to be done in this area. Assessment strategies should ask clear questions, collect appropriate data, and analyze and report results in meaningful ways.

To facilitate this, a recent report by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and CIRCLE (2006) recommended disaggregating “civic engagement” by form (e.g. volunteering, voting, protest), by political versus non-political purpose, by location and venue, by formal or informal organization, by level or intensity of participation, and by motivation (e.g. concern about an issue, personal enhancement). This will shed more light on how and in what ways students are engaged. But one should not stop there. There is an implicit assumption in the civic engagement literature that once students become engaged they are more likely to want to stay involved and engaged in later life. To truly demonstrate the link between civic learning and sustained civic engagement, “[c]ivic engagement proponents must show that such programs do in fact lead to more involved citizens in the future” (Caputo 2005:9). This will not be an easy task given the nature of longitudinal, generational research, which by its nature is complex and expensive. This work will be left to future researchers.

Institutional Imperatives

Advocates of organizational transformation around civic engagement and civic learning caution proponents to “learn to identify both the structural and ideological (or cultural) features of their own institutions” (Hartley et al. 2005:206) that can facilitate or obstruct civic engagement initiatives. As in all efforts of pedagogical innovation and advancement, structures must be present that facilitate faculty development and reward systems as well as staff support structures, if the innovation is to be effective.

Civic engagement strategies often require a more collaborative approach to curriculum planning. This creates new challenges for faculty, who must spend time in the community, building relationships that will enable their students to have meaningful civic engagement experiences that relate to the academic content of their course. Since the start-up costs are so high, faculty need resources to learn what to do. There are numerous publications to help faculty start down the road of civic engagement (Gottlieb and Robinson 2002; Gordon 2003). Campus Compact provides hands-on training at conferences and workshops. They also have individual campus consultants who will conduct workshops to interested faculty on specific campuses and provide sample syllabi across disciplines (at

Once civic learning strategies are instituted, faculty will face the added burden of managing time, keeping track of students, identifying and coordinating with community partners, and building and evaluating an assessment mechanism. Most campuses have a civic engagement or community service program office with paid staff that can support faculty in their civic engagement initiatives. But these offices vary widely in their structure and supportive role. In the end, faculty will be the ones who will shoulder the burden of civic engagement initiatives.

Faculty are confronted with the risks associated with innovative pedagogical strategies, namely job security. As we know, reward strategies vary from campus to campus. If faculty efforts at civic engagement are not recognized in the personnel review process, faculty either will devote less time and energy to these efforts or face the consequences come tenure and promotion time (Votruba 1996; Davidson 1997). This has led some scholars to note: “The requirement that faculty spend time in the community has significant implications for systems of retention, tenure and promotions” (Lounsbury and Pollack 2001:334). Since faculty promotion and tenure resides with the academic units, departments must value civic engagement initiatives. However, sometimes civic engagement initiatives originate in other parts of the university and are not readily seen by departmental peer-review committees as worthwhile. This can have a detrimental impact on a faculty member's career.

Finally, there needs to be a sustained approach to institutionalizing civic engagement in higher education where the institution places civic engagement values and practices in the mainstream (Furco and Holland 2004; Mundy 2004). This requires organizational leadership that makes civic engagement an institutional priority and provides the resources and reward structures necessary for faculty and staff to develop initiatives (Caputo 2005; Gearan 2005). Acknowledging this, Campus Compact initiated a Presidents’ Declaration of the Responsibility of Higher Education, in which leaders of colleges and universities commit their institutions to civic engagement (Bringle et al. 1999; Colby et al. 2003; 2007). However, these programs can be expensive, and in an era of financial restraint, it may be difficult to secure the resources needed to adequately support staff and faculty in these endeavors. In the end, this may be the biggest challenge to instituting civic engagement in higher education.


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                                                                                                                                                                          The author would like to thank Andrea Thompson McCall, Director of the Office of Community Service and Civic Engagement at the University of Southern Maine, and Donna Bird, Director of the Center of Teaching, for their support of her pedagogical initiatives.