Obama Pushes Colleges to Confront Growing Recession in Civic Learning

By Orchowski, Peggy Sands | The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education, March 26, 2012 | Go to article overview

Obama Pushes Colleges to Confront Growing Recession in Civic Learning


Orchowski, Peggy Sands, The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education


Most people know mat public confidence ill all pubic institutions is decreasing in the United States. Only around 10 percent of Americans approve of the way Congress is handling its job. The U.S. ranks 1 39th in the world in voter participation in elections; even in popular presidential elections, fewer diali 50 percent of eligible voters actually vote.

Tor years, educators and policymakers have been tracking these downward trends, exacerbated by the deep divides, incivility and hyper-polarization that increasingly characterize political discussion in the media and in the political arena. It all continuously diminishes Americans' opportunities for civic alliances and thoughtful discourse, they say.

In 1998, a report warned that ':bi a lime that cries out for civic action, we are in danger of becoming a nation of spectators." In 2000, Robert Putnam warned in his book Bowling Alone that there was an increasing decline in "bridging capital" - the social capital that is defined as the capacity to work across differences. In 2010, the president of the Kettering Foundation, David Matthews, wrote: "Events 'are moving us toward what cannot be - a citizenless democracy.'"

"Democracy is dependent on an ecosystem not only of legislative bodies and executive agencies, but also of civil alliances, social norms and deliberative practices that empower people to work together," says Matthews. "Every sector and every person can contribute to this civic enterprise, including all of the education sector, where education for democracy and civic responsibility needs to be a bedrock expectation."

On Jan. 10, the White House hosted a ''National Call to Action" to U.S. institutions of higher education "to invest on a massive scale in its capacity to renew the nation's social, intellectual and civic capital." Its report, A Crucible Moment, produced by a national task force of education leaders and stakeholders, calls on all of higher education's public and private, twoand four-year institutions and its entire community "to embrace civic learning and democratic engagement as an undisputed educational priority,"

"We are facing a civic recession as well as an economic one," Martha Kanter, under secretan' of the U.S. Department of Education, said at the report's launch at the White House. "We need to deepen civic identification in our educational system."

"Getting a college degree cannot just be about training for a career," said Carol Schneider, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&l), in a personal interview. Schneider was the desipated coordinator of the Call to Action report and the meeting at the White House.

"College at any level is more than workforce training. It also has to be about learning knowledgeable citizenship. Postsecondary education must incorporate the three C's of education: college, careers and citizenship. They need not be separate or competing; they all should be priorities. It's not a zero sum game."

White House officials are in full agreement. Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor and assistant to the president for intergovernmental affairs and public engagement and arguably the president's closest advisor, encouraged the educators at the White House report launch to focus on students' civic responsibilities as well as their academic ones. She reminisced about working for years with Michelle Obama, before she was the first lady, in outreach projects at a Chicago hospital. "We took, then and now, civic responsibility very seriously. We were always organiring ihe students and staff to do volunteer work," she told die report launch audience.

Many student volunteer projects are cited in the Crucible Moment report. But it also points out that "community service is not necessarily the same as democratic engagement with others across different areas to collectively solve public problems. While service does not always establish a reciprocal partnership, it often can be the first step toward a more fully developed set of civic commitments. …

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