Academic journal article Peer Review

Civic Learning for All Students

Academic journal article Peer Review

Civic Learning for All Students

Article excerpt

On November 8, 2016, thousands ofJames Madison University (JMU) undergraduates lined up at the campus polling precinct to cast their votes. They were laughing and chatting with strangers, snapping selfies, and posting on social media, each student eager to record the memory of that historic event. And that's a key takeaway from that day-for them, voting in their first presidential election, voting for perhaps the first time ever, was a major turning point in their civic lives. Regardless of how they voted, what matters most is that they participated at all.

Since the 2012 publication of A Crucible Moment, more and more colleges and universities are doing their part to reengage young Americans in the political process. This collective work reflects a recommitment on the part of institutions of higher education to fulfill their public purpose, but progress has been slow. A postelection survey by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) suggests that, despite a similar rate of youth (under age thirty) voter turnout in November 2016 compared to November 2012, it may be even harder in the future to get and keep youth politically motivated. Though more engaged and more eager for change than the previous generation, young people disagree over what change is needed and, more important, discount the ability of the traditional two-party system to effect any change at all. As CIRCLE concludes, "Stronger civic education and strategic, intentional youth outreach remains key,"

At JMU, we are intentionally creating an environment in which civic learning is expected for every student. Although our mission statement has long called on us to prepare "educated and enlightened citizens who lead meaningful and productive lives," the challenges of the twenty-first century prompted us to adopt a new approach that we hope can inspire appropriate changes elsewhere. First, we decided to promote through our current strategic plan three distinct kinds of engagement: engaged learning, community engagement, and civic engagement. We also created an Office for Strategic Planning and Engagement to track institutional progress within and across these three areas, and we designated an Engagement Advisory Group to provide day-to-day leadership and foster collaboration among the various engagement committees, academic entities, and administrative units that characterize the modern university. Most notably, we established the James Madison Center for Civic Engagement, an office with full-time personnel, an independent budget, and responsibility for coordinating and cultivating the civic competencies of our nearly 20,000 undergraduates. Mindful that we are a public institution, we volunteered to host the new Virginia Campus Compact chapter, sent distinguished representatives to Governor Terry McAuliffe's Task Force on Millennial Civic Engagement, and annually host community forums and candidate debates. Though not inclusive, this summary suggests the kinds of institutional practices that not only foster the civic ethos that pervades our campus, but also aid the development of civically or politically oriented outcomes across the curriculum and cocurriculum.

AN OUTCOMES-BASED APPROACH

Civic learning for our undergraduates begins in our general education program, the Human Community, one of the oldest outcomes-based programs in the nation. For twenty years, we have required that students complete one of three unique four-credit courses designed to develop their knowledge of American political traditions and principles, and we have consistently strong evidence demonstrating the success of these courses. More recently, we added an ethical reasoning course to the offerings in our criticalthinking area, and we are piloting a new version of a human communication course that incorporates deliberative dialogue and public advocacy. In these and other ways, our program nicely aligns with the civic outcomes associated with the Liberal Education and America's Promise (LEAP) initiative of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). …

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