Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Why the Civic Engagement Movement Cannot Achieve Democratic and Justice Aims

Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Why the Civic Engagement Movement Cannot Achieve Democratic and Justice Aims

Article excerpt

Many institutions of higher education have embraced a commitment to civic engagement, usually through service-learning courses or faculty community-engaged scholarship (Sandmann, Thornton, & Jaeger, 2009). However, our communities still confront many of the same injustices and inequalities that inspired the contemporary civic engagement movement. This raises an interesting question for civic engagement scholars: Given the degree to which the civic engagement field has been institutionalized in higher education, why has the field failed to achieve clearly defined democratic and justice aims?

This article examines how neoliberal ideology structures our society and higher education institutions, thereby providing a theoretically-informed response to this question. The article highlights how commitments to neoliberal ideology structures the context that limits the civic engagement movement's efforts to achieve democratic and justice aims. The first section contextualizes the problem neoliberalism poses for the field of civic engagement and defines relevant key terms. The second section considers the literature related to neoliberalism and community engagement. The third section uses the example of competitive grants to explain how neoliberal ideology obstructs the strategic aims of democracy and justice. The final section encourages civic education scholars and practitioners to be more conscious of the way ideology impacts civic engagement efforts.

The Problem of Neoliberalism for the Civic Engagement Movement

For purposes of this article, we use the Carnegie Foundation's definition for community engagement: "the collaboration between institutions of higher education and their larger communities (local, regional/ state, national, global) for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity" (Saltmarsh & Driscoll, 2012). In higher education, civic engagement represents an umbrella term capturing a range of public, community, democratic, social/economic, political, and moral engagements (Berger, 2011). Manifestations of the higher education civic engagement movement are often expressed through forms of engaged scholarship. (e.g. engaged research methods, service-learning pedagogies, university-community engaged outreach partnerships, etc.).

Neoliberalism is the theoretical concept used to describe the current ideological and economic structure of advanced capitalism. From a philosophical perspective, neoliberalism is an economic project spanning geo-political boundaries and emphasizing the role of economic markets in supporting conceptions of liberty. From a policy and legal perspective, neoliberalism is associated with supply-side economics, deregulation and reregulation of markets, privatization of the public sphere, the imposition of market principles in all aspects of social life, and a general suspicion of social and political welfare-regulatory programs originating from the state (Brown, 2006; Harvey, 2005; Vazquez-Arroyo, 2008). Neoliberalism provides the ideological context that allows advanced capitalism to approach the highest levels of sophistication and development. It is impossible to separate any aspect of today's human condition from the ideological context of neoliberalism.

The civic engagement movement struggles to gain traction because neoliberal ideology has changed the relationship between the market, civil society, and the state. Contrasted with a market-based economy, a market-based society shapes the social, political, and economic spheres using the ideological logic of neoliberalism. Market-based societies make it difficult to determine where markets begin and end. Although neoliberal ideology has increased in scope and intensity, the civic engagement field has failed to account for the predominant structures of the paradigm.

In February 2008, a group of scholars, practitioners, and scholar-practitioners associated with the study and practice of civic engagement convened in Dayton, Ohio for the annual Kettering Colloquium. …

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