Saturday, August 11, 2012

Third phase civic engagement and the mission of American higher education

Let me argue that we have entered a third phase of campus civic engagement, one which most campuses are unprepared to face.

Though nearly every type of college or university in the US was born with a civic mission, by the late 1950s, many had abandoned that mission for narrower, more private ones.

Phase one civic engagement emerged with the campus-based rebellions of the late 60s and early 70s.  It grew out of a critique of the higher education of the 1950s. That critique argued that colleges and universities were irrelevant unless they escaped the thrall of the powerful and reactionary. Instead, they should be sources for the creation of a just, egalitarian society. Though phase one grew out of student rebellion, its main supporters were faculty, who through the 70s and 80s built the intellectual apparatus that supports civic engagement--fields of research dedicated to understanding and overturning oppression and pedagogy that favors active or experiential learning.

Phase two adopted the pedagogy and theory of phase one, and adapted it to the civic landscape of the late 80s and 90s.  Its thrust was institutional, and its goal was to build an infrastructure--centers, journals, conferences, and organizations--to embed service-learning and civic engagement into the life of the college.  If phase one had been built on faculty members' desires to bring about radical change in politics, phase two grew out of staff and administrator desires to change students, who in the narrative of phase two civic engagement tended to be traditional full-time students who were disengaged from civic life and from learning.  Service-learning thus became a tool to get students engage in learning by engaging in the community.  Community leaders, who might have blanched at the theoretical radicalism of phase one, found phase two to be wonderful--a source of volunteers, project-doers, supporters of non-profits, and future interns, employees, and citizens.

Most campuses continue to practice a blend of phase one and phase two civic engagement.  Faculty continue to push civic engagement as a tool for political change, staff and administrators continue to see civic engagement as a tool for learning through community-building, and the apparatus that supports these efforts continues.

But while campuses have settled in, students have changed radically.  The proportion of traditional college students--full-time 18-24 year olds living on or near campus and away from their families--is in decline.  So, too, is support for traditional approaches to higher education--approaches which seem to cost too much and lead to too few graduates.  In their place is emerging a new civic context which colleges and universities ought to attend.  Among the characteristics of the new civic context that matter for higher ed are the following:
  • Student demographics have changed radically.  There are more students of color, more low-income students, more first-generation students, more returning students--in short, more "non-traditional" students than ever before.
  • These students are not disengaged from "the community" to use the language of phase two civic engagement.  Instead, they have never left the community.  Many live at home, and work, and have families, and maintain powerful civic and community commitments.
  • These students do not have the time or habits of using phase two's infrastructures.  They are often on campus long after the Center for Civic Engagement has closed, or they are rushing from class to work, without time to stop at the service project.  In fact, group work, partnership building, and the rest of the pedagogical apparatus of active learning is a headache for them because they do not own their time. Learning takes place online as much as in the classroom, and reflection is a natural habit, one supported by facebook, instagram, tumblr, and twitter.
  • These students are impatient with the radical politics of phase one, and with the traditional civic engagement efforts of phase two.  The distinctions between school, work, community, and family life don't work for them, since those things do not fall into neat silos in their day-to-day lives.
  • Instead, today's students are pragmatic.  They will join coalitions with anyone.  They are all leaders comfortable in leaderless efforts.  They favor social entrepreneurship over traditional non-profit work, and boycotts, protests, petitions, marches, and occupations over voting and political parties.
If I am at all right about the third phase, then colleges and universities have some important questions to ask themselves.  Our tendency will be to jump to the practical ones--How should we use twitter in civic engagement?  Should we keep the Center for Civic Engagement open later?  How can we engage this new demographic of students?

But the more important question is not practical, and it does not have to do with students, but with institutional mission.  If students are richly engaged in communities and only sporadically engaged in college life, and if this trend will continue into the future, how can colleges and universities make use of those changes to fulfill their own civic missions?

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