Academic journal article Higher Learning Research Communications

What If a State Required Civic Learning for All Its Undergraduates?

Academic journal article Higher Learning Research Communications

What If a State Required Civic Learning for All Its Undergraduates?

Article excerpt


One hundred years ago, John Dewey wrote, "Democracy must be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife" (1916, p. 139). Dewey's insight was that a system of government relying on its citizens to share in political decision-making can succeed only if the people hold a shared vision of themselves as participants in public life, working with others toward a common good-and that systems of education are the primary tool that societies have to create this sense of civic identity among their members.

A commitment to the civic function of education goes back at least two millennia before Dewey. Cicero's vision of the liberal arts draws from the same root word as liberty; for Cicero, the liberal arts were the knowledge and skills that a free people need to govern themselves, and it is the job of educators to develop that knowledge and those skills.

In the United States, a recent reaffirmation of that vision (and a "national call to action" to realize this vision in higher education) was the 2012 publication of A crucible moment: College learning and democracy's future (The National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement). For the authors, postsecondary education is "one of the defining sites for learning and practicing democratic and civic responsibilities"; it is:

an intellectual and public commons where it is possible not only to theorize about what education for democratic citizenship might require in a diverse society, but also to rehearse that citizenship daily in the fertile, roiling context of pedagogic inquiry and handson experiences. (p. 2)

The report goes on to urge "every college and university to foster a civic ethos that governs campus life, make civic literacy a goal for every graduate, integrate civic inquiry within majors and general education, and advance civic action as lifelong practice" (p. 14; emphasis in original).

In a global context, a 2015 UNESCO report (Rethinking education: Towards a global common good?) defined education as not just a "public good," but as a "global common good," and said that education has a new role of "fostering responsible citizenship and solidarity in a global world." When the concept and practice of citizenship "is changing under the influence of globalization," where "Transnational social and political communities, civil society and activism are expressions of emerging 'post-national' forms of citizenship," education has a crucial role in promoting the knowledge we need to develop: First, a sense of shared destiny with local and national social, cultural, and political environments, as well as with humanity as a whole; second, an awareness of the challenges posed to the development of communities, through an understanding of the interdependence of patterns of social, economic and environmental change at the local and global levels; and third, a commitment to engage in civic and social action based on a sense of individual responsibility towards communities, at the local, national and global levels (pp. 65-67).

This view of the purpose of education is not, of course, universally held, and it competes with other views of education.

This article explores one example of a commitment to education for democracy and the public good, telling the story of the first state in the United States to set the expectation that every undergraduate in public higher education would be involved in civic learning. Many questions might arise about such an initiative. In describing the first steps taken toward this goal and articulating further steps planned, this article addresses four of those questions:

1 How might work be coordinated across two dozen different institutions, each with their own systems and structures of governance, so that coherent results are generated across the public system?

2 How might stakeholders find out how well students are learning what they need to learn to be informed and effective participants in civic and democratic life? …

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