Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Sustained Dialogue and Civic Life: Post-College Impacts

Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Sustained Dialogue and Civic Life: Post-College Impacts

Article excerpt

Many educators have sought experiences to help young people become part of an engaged local and global citizenry, both prepared for and motivated to participate in a democratic society. In Democracy and Education, Dewey (1916) wrote:

   Democracy is more than a form of government;
   it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint
   communicated experience ... It is the name
   of a way of life of free and enriching communion
   in which free social inquiry is wedded to the art
   of full and moving communication. (p. 81)

The current research study reinforces the bridge between two movements in higher education--civic engagement and intergroup dialogue. The study draws on two concepts embedded in the above quote: first, the notion of living in association with others, the essence of what we term a broad "civic life;" and second, the idea of a shared communication or dialogue with others. These two ideas--that a civic life is a broader way of living in association with others and dialogue is a unique process fostering individual community engagement--undergird this study.

Other researchers have made this connection as well. Educational policy makers and university administrators want college graduates to be competent in the "arts of democracy," i.e., capable of and effective at engaging in a participatory democracy (Colby, Ehrlich, Beaumont, & Stephens, 2003; Ehrlich, 2000; Guaraci, Cornwell, & Associates, 1997). These arts include "inclusive and respectful dialogue, thoughtful reasoning, conflict transformation, collective decision-making and policy-making, and social action" (Thomas & Mallory, 2007, p. 2) across all differences in social identity, values, experiences, and perspectives.

Over the last 50 years, despite some setbacks and with a few exceptions, American universities have made efforts to increase both racial and economic diversity in their student bodies. Greater diversity on campuses creates opportunities for greater conflict and learning. However, diversity by itself does not create the conditions for people to engage with one another (Gurin, 1999). There are a number of initiatives on college campuses to proactively create conditions for intergroup dialogues across difference (Diaz, 2009). Recent research suggests that such initiatives yield outcomes encouraging college graduates to become engaged and participatory citizens (Nagda, 2007).

Three Bodies of Literature

The present study draws upon three sources of literature to investigate the relationship between dialogue and civic life: student learning and development, intergroup dialogue, and civic engagement. This study is located at the nexus of all three.

Student Learning and Development

Studies of student development have concluded that college causes changes in four areas: learning and cognitive changes, psychosocial changes, attitudes and values, and moral development (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). Such changes seem integrated in that "change in any one area appeared part of a reinforcing network" (p. 572). In addition, scholars have flagged interactions with peers as antecedents to deep learning and have sought ways to "harness peer influence to further the educational aims of the institution" (Kuh, 1995, p. 149).

Intergroup Contact Theory (Allport, 1954) posited that intergroup contact could reduce prejudice if four conditions were met: (a) equal group status, (b) common goals, (c) intergroup cooperation, and (d) the support of authorities, laws, or customs. Building on Allport's work, Pettigrew (1998) refined Intergroup Contact Theory to explain how contact with members of a different group decreases prejudice and increases perspectives and tolerance. Ultimately, learning across difference requires interpersonal contact, whether in a formal classroom, dining hall over a meal, or residential hall educational program. It is the engagement with the other (listening, conversing, and reflecting) that yields learning across difference. …

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