2003-04 Social Science Colloquium: "Higher Education and Civic Engagement: Fulfilling the Promise"
In 1936, philosopher John Dewey stated that the aims of liberal education must be about more than preparing students for lives of personal fulfillment and professional accomplishment. The ultimate rationale for liberal education, he claimed, is to make democracy work. That means institutions must be actively engaged in the problems of their communities and must model the qualities of citizenship they hope to inculcate in their students.
—from The Civic Mission of Higher Education: From Outreach to Engagement, Kettering Foundation, 2001
Others maintain that the objective of a liberal education is to cultivate intellect and values through reading and reflecting on great works, preferably in a climate free of worldly distractions. At the start then of a new millennium are our ivory towers to remain set apart or is the academy to be a shaper of public culture? Are we teaching critical thinking, promoting collective responsibility, and cultivating productive citizens as our founders proposed?
Many lament the apparent student apathy on campus. National surveys indicate that today’s college students are less politically engaged than their predecessors of the past four decades. A smaller percentage of youth vote and many students entering and leaving college are uninterested in influencing the political structure, keeping up with public affairs, or becoming community leaders. At the same time, political polarization alienates some students and keeps groups from working together on common goals. Many students believe it’s too hard for one person to make significant change and so never get involved in social causes.
Still, young people are volunteering at a higher rate than previous generations. Mistrustful of government and skeptical of bureaucracy, they feel they have a greater chance of making a difference through community service. The success of the Bucknell Brigade to Nicaragua, the popularity of Management 101, the number of volunteers at the local community center, and ongoing student philanthropy are just a few examples of how hungry students are for meaningful experiences.
Granted, voluntary participation can be beneficial and personally rewarding; but how do we revise public policy or bring about structural change if tomorrow’s citizens are not formally learning how to dialogue across differences, practice civic responsibility, or participate in community decision-making? While it is laudable that our students choose to help at a soup kitchen or tutor a struggling youngster, are we guiding their reflections so that they ask and understand why people are hungry, or seek better ways to help Johnny read? If educational institutions are not helping them make the connections, what does this imply for the future of America’s public sphere? Is the trend toward ultimate individualism continuing while we witness the demise of civic participation?
Or are new initiatives by the academy - those that support service-learning, encourage community-based research, and reward innovative teaching and engaged scholarship - helping us to use social capital, academic resources, and disciplinary knowledge for the public good? What strategies can schools employ to promote civic responsibility and build a generation of engaged citizens? Dewey obviously believed in the power of education. At the same time, he argued that the life of the mind by itself was insufficient in meeting the challenges of U.S. democracy. Civic engagement as part of education, he argued, is required to address the needs of our communities and fulfill the potential of our citizens.
Our first speaker, Paul Loeb, will share his findings from interviews with citizens who are dedicated to a variety of social causes, documenting what helped them get involved and maintain their commitment despite challenges. Theda Skocpol will review the historical development and decline of voluntary associations and discuss implications for our civic future. Hal Saunders will bring a wealth of public experience to a discussion of conflict-resolution strategies and the need for sustained dialogue across racial, ethnic, and religious lines. Harry Boyte will argue that our institutions need to engage in public service not on behalf of the community, but instead, in partnership with the community. Finally, Gary Delgado will address concerns about how lack of citizen empowerment can put our civil liberties at risk, especially in times of turmoil. Please join us for what promises to be some lively discussions.
Janice Butler, Colloquium Coordinator
Director of Service-Learning
121 Taylor Hall