By Kaylesh Ramu and David Hoffman
Given the rancorous tone of current public debate and the gridlock in government, college students are understandably skeptical about politics and public life. Our polarized legislators seem unable to discuss issues with civility, and policy only seems to be made when one party has a supermajority and compromise is unnecessary.
This pessimistic view may be the received wisdom, but we see reasons for hope on many college campuses. At the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, students are helping lead the way to a new kind of politics that bridges difference and strengthens communities.
One team of Jewish and Muslim students worked together with administrators to bring more kosher and halal options to campus eateries. Other teams are working with campus partners to redesign spaces, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, encourage healthy lifestyle choices and boost campus spirit. The Student Government Association long ago leapt beyond the “let’s pretend” model of student government to become a catalyst for students’ creativity and engagement and a national model for sparking innovation. Instead of treating students as constituents to be served and then solicited at election time, UMBC‘s student government recognizes them as people with differing views and backgrounds whose talents and passions can be brought together for the common good.
On a campus with UMBC’s diversity, disagreements are inevitable. The work of building partnerships and allocating scarce resources can be messy and complicated. This is where “politics” comes in: not as a dirty word for the power-seeking tactics of political elites, but as a set of skills everyone can use to find common ground and get things done. The kind of generative politics practiced at UMBC, supported by a culture that celebrates innovation and resourcefulness, brings faculty, staff, students, alumni and community partners together to envision alternative futures and solve problems.
Indeed, a growing chorus of voices is calling for greater civic engagement in higher education to help more students build these skills. The influential report, “A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future,” issued earlier this year by the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, urges institutions to look beyond conventional civic engagement efforts focused on voting and voluntary community service. Although both are important, the authors say, “even together they are insufficient to offset the civic erosion we are experiencing.” Instead, schools should help students learn complex civic skills through experience, using strategies such as deliberative dialogues, service-learning and collective problem-solving.
Another new report, “Advancing Civic Learning and Engagement in Democracy: A Roadmap and Call to Action,” published by the U.S. Department of Education, argues that the nation’s return on its investment of hundreds of billions of dollars in students’ education must be measured not just by students’ productive employment but also their capacity to work together to “solve collective problems creatively and collaboratively.” The report calls on schools to treat civic education and engagement as “essential parts of the core academic mission” rather than relegating them to the sidelines, and to pursue forms of engagement that are “more ambitious and participatory than in the past.”
Two promising new projects are about to carry these ideas forward in exciting ways. At UMBC, we recently launched BreakingGround, a campus-wide initiative to embed opportunities for civic learning and collaborative problem-solving even more broadly and deeply in our curriculum and co-curricular activities. BreakingGround features a new website (breakingground.umbc.edu) where we can share our stories, discuss issues and find new connections.
This article originally appeared on www.baltimoresun.com
“For Democracy’s Future: Education Reclaims Our Civic Mission”- White House Event Reinforces The Need For Civic EducationPosted: January 12, 2012
At the White House yesterday, the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan,called on a gathering of civic education, government, business and philanthropy leaders to provide practical civic engagement opportunities for students from grade school to graduate school.
The group, along with other senior Obama Administration officials, were gathered to launch a national conversation “For Democracy’s Future: Education Reclaims Our Civic Mission” focusing on the importance of educating students for informed and engaged citizenship.
“Our young people have an appetite, their committed, they want to be engaged … But somehow we’ve walked away from providing those opportunities,” Duncan said. He added that he sees education as more than ‘book’ knowledge and included teaching students to participate in a vibrant democracy.
“Hands on learning experiences that engage young people in the community and have them, at very early ages start to see the impact they can have, I think, is probably the best way to teach that,”Duncan said.
Skills young people gain through civic engagement –critical thinking, working in diverse teams and asking hard questions – are the same skills that they will need to be successful in the economy.
Duncan also said that when senior college students are surveyed, they feel they have had less opportunities to make a difference during their time in college than when they first entered college. “That passion is there, that desire is there but somehow we’re not meeting that need. So collectively we have to do something very, very different”.
The White House event also marked the release of “A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future,” a new report to the Department of Education from leading civic scholars and practitioners, as well as the Department’s own report, “Advancing Civic Learning and Engagement in Democracy: A Road Map and Call to Action.”
Event also introduced the new American Commonwealth Partnership, which aims to bring together thousands of universities, colleges, community colleges, schools and other civic partners to promote civic education,civic mission and civic identity throughout all of education in the United States.
Senior Advisor to the President, Valerie Jarrett also spoke and reaffirmed President Obama’s commitment to education. “We hope that this provides us with a launching off point, a catalyst, the beginning of what we hope will be an ongoing engagement.”
Harry Boyte, Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College, talked about the importance of “democracy colleges”, which he said would reinvent citizenship for the 21st century. Boyte said moving the ACP (powered by DemocracyU) forward and developing these democracy colleges across the country is critical for the future of education and society in general.
“We see ourselves as responding to the call of the nation, to the crisis of the nation. There is a deep sense that we need to move from a ‘me’ culture to a ‘we’ culture,” Boyte said.
A number of students and graduates also spoke on panels at the event. One, Nikki Cooley, of the Dinesh tribe also known as Navaho, who is a program coordinator at Northern Arizona University, recalled having trouble in math and science and not being interested in it in high school.
“I come from 17 million acres of land where 80 percent of the people don’t have electricity or running water, ” Cooley said. Her parents didn’t get electricity until 2011 (and are still waiting for running water). It was being connected to opportunities that were relevant to her background, she said, that led her to understand how and why math and science mattered to her future.
“I realized I had opportunities that were relevant to my background. That used my background as a Navaho woman … who is concerned about issues on the Navaho reservation and other native communities. Because that is who I am, first and foremost.”
Cooley described how cultivating these interests led her to complete a Master’s in forestry works, and work with climate scientists to learn more about climate change on the Colorado Plateau.
“If I [learned about] that in high school I would have been more inclined to be interested or stay awake in class,” she said. Cooley went on to urge the government and educators to consider relevant cultural educational opportunities when thinking about democracy in colleges and universities.
Bianca Brown, a student at Western Kentucky University and a senior coach at Public Achievement, spoke about the role of students and citizenship.
“It’s not enough to hang an American flag in front of your home and call yourself a citizen,” she said. Brown spoke to the importance of sharing knowledge and “empowering the un-empowered” through activity, and being engaged as a student.
She also said that her university professor, Paul Markham, gave her inspiration and the support she needed to find her voice. “I lived in the projects for ten years but I was always passionate. I always wanted to focus that passion,” Brown told DemocracyU.
It was the encouragement of collaborative work at university that showed her how to focus that passion, she added.
Watch the videos of all speakers at the event :
Read more on Civic Learning and Engagement in Democracy at U.S. Dept of Ed: http://www.ed.gov/civic-learning