Describing Transformative Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement Practices
By David Hoffman, ADP Steering Committee Member and Assistant Director of Student Life for Civic Agency at UMBC
AASCU Vice President for Academic Leadership and Change George Mehaffy, founder of the American Democracy Project, has reflected on several occasions that too many of the campus civic learning and engagement programs and activities inspired by ADP in its first few years were marginal, episodic, and celebratory. When he recalled this concern at a recent ADP gathering in New Orleans prior to the 2015 ADP/TDC/NASPA Civic Learning & Democratic Engagement (CLDE) meeting, I suggested that we need equally clear and concise language to describe the positive attributes of profoundly valuable and impactful civic learning and democratic engagement efforts.
I’m going to respond to my own call by proposing a few such attributes (and inviting feedback on them), but first I want to build on George’s list of adjectives for engagement efforts that may be too shallow to have a significant impact on students’ skills and sense of civic possibility and efficacy. Here is how I understand George’s three descriptors:
- Marginal: A Crucible Moment, the widely influential report released in 2012 by the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, called upon colleges and universities to make opportunities for civic inquiry and action pervasive in the curriculum and co-curriculum, and available to all students. Institutions pursuing marginal civic engagement efforts fail this charge by confining such opportunities to a small number of courses or narrow sets of activities managed by particular departments or centers. This confinement can signal to students that the activities to which they devote the bulk of their time and attention—including academics, work, and recreation—lack civic significance and are not forums for enacting community stewardship and positive social change.
- Episodic: In an increasingly complex world, people hoping to address social problems in a serious way—even on the scale of a single college or university campus—must develop a nuanced sense of history, culture, and the interplay of various systems and institutions. In the face of this complexity, episodic civic engagement activities seek to reduce social problems and social change to convenient, bite-sized, individually wrapped pieces: a single or occasional service event, forum, or action. Episodic civic learning and engagement efforts also take the form of disconnected, single-day experiences like Constitution Day, which can raise important topics but fail to engage all students in sustained problem-posing, problem-solving, and community building through which they can develop civic agency.
- Celebratory: When people work across differences to solve problems and build institutions, the process is likely to surface tensions and frustrations. Celebratory civic activities seek to maintain a safe distance from the rough and tumble of everyday politics by convening people to affirm broad principles and sentiments that almost everybody embraces. Among them: a general desire to support local communities; admiration for American civic heroes from previous centuries; and appreciation for the existence of the U.S. Constitution.
To this excellent list I would add one more critical descriptor:
- Scripted: When people are free to explore and create together, they can self-organize to pose and address messy, unstructured problems; mine their diverse stories to discover new possibilities for themselves and their communities; and experience a profound sense of individual and collective agency. But spontaneity also confounds forecasting and measurement, and can undermine educators’ sense of control. Heavily scripted civic activities diminish uncertainty and discomfort by spelling out students’ precise roles and tasks in advance.
Fulfilling ADP’s vision for deep, pervasive and ongoing civic learning and democratic engagement requires resisting the temptations of excessive compartmentalization, simplification, caution, and prescription. So what words capture the essence of campus ADP efforts with the potential to empower and transform? Here are some possibilities that leap to my mind:
- Integral: Campus commitments to civic learning and democratic engagement should be reflected in research, courses, and activities, within every discipline and across disciplines, within and across academic affairs and student affairs, and in campus symbols and cultural practices. There should be no division between the “civic” aspects of students’ experience and the rest of their education; no need for timeouts from everyday life in order to participate in democracy. Instead, all learning should be civic learning.
- Relational: As 2015 ADP/TDC/NASPA CLDE keynote speaker and Rutgers University-Newark Chancellor Nancy Cantor reminded us, John Dewey envisioned democracy as not merely a form of government, but a philosophy “enacted … in every year and day, in the living relations of person to person in all social forms and institutions” (“Education and Social Change,” 1937). In keeping with this vision, civic learning and democratic engagement should involve opportunities to build authentic relationships across difference, not merely to complete tasks or study people and problems from a distance.
- Organic: Improvisation is the essence of democracy. Participants in shared work to solve problems and build community—including students—should have the opportunity to imagine and grow together, and to choose or make paths not visible at the outset. Systems of professional and academic accountability must be flexible enough to accommodate and encourage such civic creativity.
- Generative: Whatever forms it may take, civic work in higher education should be directed at continually improving conditions and relationships in order to open up new horizons for progress. A course, program, or partnership that is useful and empowering today should be obsolete (at least in its current form) years hence, because its success, and the relationships it helps to generate, should leverage even more powerful possibilities for collective action.
I believe our civic learning and democratic engagement efforts are strongest when they embody all four of these attributes. To the extent that one or more of them is missing, we risk teaching and learning lessons we do not intend about the intractability of our problems, the rigidity of our roles and relationships, and the limits of human agency and democracy itself. The challenge and hope for people working at ADP institutions is to build initiatives and campus cultures that embrace and enact all four of these key attributes
Integral, relational, organic, and generative. What do you think of these descriptors for the most powerful civic learning and democratic engagement efforts? What words would you choose?