Magazine article Academe

Civic Responsibility and Higher Education

Magazine article Academe

Civic Responsibility and Higher Education

Article excerpt

Civic Responsibility and Higher Education

Thomas Ehrlich, ed. Phoenix, Ariz.: American Council on Education and Oryx Press, 2000, 448 pp., $34.50

"CURRENT LEVELS OF POLITICAL knowledge, political engagement, and political enthusiasm are so low as to threaten the vitality and stability of democratic politics in the United States," wrote a 1989 task force on civic education. "We believe political education is inadequate across the board."

That dire warning provides an epigraph for an essay in this anthology on higher education and effective citizenship. Editor Thomas Ehrlich is chair-- elect of the American Association for Higher Education and codirector of the Forum on Civic Responsibility of the American Council of Education (ACE). His long-standing commitment to civic education and familiarity with its many varieties has enabled him to enlist many major figures as contributors to Civic Responsibility and Higher Education.

Without doubt, higher education plays a critical role in educating citizens at the dawn of the twenty-first century, as political participation continues to decline and public support for colleges and universities wavers. In her essay advocating an "engaged academy," Carol Schneider takes note of the conclusions of a 1996 study, conducted for the ACE by James Harvey and John Immerwahr, that the "publies support for higher education is a mile wide, but only an inch deep." (She actually cites the second author incorrectly as: "James Imerwahr"; another essay cites Bruce Wilshire as "Whilshire." These are two of several minor but unfortunate errors scattered throughout the book.)

Schneider believes an emphasis on learning communities, investigative pedagogy, and a "relational approach to educating citizens" can reverse the decline of public commitment. Her focus on changes in the classroom supplements Nancy Thomas's reflections on the many forms of institutional citizenship, ranging from continuing education to access to facilities and cultural events, and from presidential initiatives to appointment of community outreach coordinators.

This collection is divided into five parts, beginning with a delineation of the problems that the civic education movement seeks to address. Subsequent sections address the nature of current programs, higher education's relationship with other social forces, and the perspective of particular kinds of institutions.

A concluding section, "Special Challenges," includes Edward Zlotkowsky's review of developments in the disciplines, Jane Wellman's overview of assessment issues, and a review of "the state of the movement and the need for a national network" by Elizabeth Hollander and Matthew Hartley. Despite important progress in highlighting civic responsibility in national educational discussions, write Hollander and Hartley, isolation and fragmentation plague local initiatives. Often, they find, a university's teaching-development center is scarcely aware that a service-learning center and a community outreach office exist on the same campus.

Given the overlap among many of the essays, the topical section headings fit their contents only loosely. The contributions generally divide into three categories: descriptions of the historical background and theoretical basis for civic education, accounts of existing programs, and proposals for new initiatives. The essays in the first category include some that are original and provocative, but unfortunately they do not appear to have been available to other contributors as they addressed more practical matters.

Alexander Astin contributes a particularly provocative essay. Bemoaning the trend to eliminate remedial education from the university curriculum, Astin argues that there is no more important measure of the academy's contribution to society than its success in serving its least-prepared students. "Just as medical treatment should strive to change an otherwise negative outcome through effective care and treatment," he urges, "so should colleges and universities strive to change the 'prognosis' for the underprepared student. …

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