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Margin Notes

Putting the political into service learning

U.S. academics decry loss of political engagement on campus.


This is a guest post by University Affairs editor Peggy Berkowitz.

In the last 25 years, there has been remarkable growth in “civic engagement” on university campuses in the United States, with widespread programs, new associations and foundations to support it. But accompanying this growth in civic engagement courses and programs – in Canada, often called “service learning” – there’s been a sharp decline in political engagement on campuses.

This was the focus of an excellent panel discussion – which I’ll get back to in a moment – during the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities held in Washington, D.C. Jan. 25-28. The idea that universities should educate students to be actively engaged in democracy was the central theme of the conference, which attracted more than 2,000 participants, mainly administrators and faculty involved in undergraduate education.

Carol Geary Schneider is president of AAC&U, a large membership organization that supports liberal arts and science education at the undergraduate level. In opening remarks, she referred to the deepening economic divide in the United States that is “leaving more Americans behind.” Noting that in the Civil War and other times of crisis, the U.S. has turned to higher education “to be a carrier of democracy in every sphere,” she asserted that today “higher education should and can play a far more influential role” in policy and the future of the U.S.

In a presidential election year where the level of political debate has depressed many intellectuals, it wasn’t shocking, but still felt a little foreign to a Canadian, to see democracy figure in such a central way at a conference about undergraduate education.

The particular session I found so interesting was the panel entitled “Where is the political in civic engagement?”

Matthew Hartley, associate professor and chair of the department of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, traced the trajectory of the civic engagement movement, which began in the mid-’80s, a time, like today, where a weak economy was placing financial pressures on colleges and universities. Led by different groups of university presidents, the early movement centred around the idea that “we have failed to provide the education for citizenship that is still the most significant responsibility of the nation’s schools and colleges” (Frank Newman, in an influential 1985 report Higher Education and the American Resurgence).

One of those groups, the Campus Compact, surveyed its 225 members in 1991 and found just 16 percent of their students were involved in service, almost all of it volunteerism; and just 15 percent of these institutions had offices to support this work. Today, the most recent survey by the same group showed 31 percent of students taking part in service-learning courses and service, and 94 percent of member institutions (now numbering 1,100) with an office or centre coordinating these activities.

“So there is an explosion of activity,” noted Dr. Hartley, “But to what end?”

The founders’ original impulse “was expressly civic in nature … to realign the work of the academy to serve our democracy.” This goal, he said, began to be contested in the 1990s as the movement grew, evolving into the idea of service-learning in the service of academic disciplines. A growing body of research shows that community engagement activities “had not addressed the problem of political disengagement and disaffection,” he said. “What had emerged was remarkably apolitical ‘civic’ engagement.”

Another panelist was Amanda Moore McBride, director of the Gephardt Institute for Public Service at Washington University, whose role is to promote civic engagement. The institute focuses on increasing access to voting, by a variety of means, including sponsoring presidential and vice-presidential debates, working closely with student groups for social justice, and working with neighbouring municipalities. In 2008, the institute surveyed a representative sample of students about their political behaviour – whether they voted, for example – and, controlling for things like parental behaviour, asked about three influences on their political activity: service learning, community service and discussion of politics in the classroom. “The number one predictor” of civic engagement “was discussion of politics in the classroom,” she said.

But, she continued, “we can’t assume that faculty know how to have these conversations. We have to help them” The institute now has tutors trained in politics on campus, and sponsors a credit course on “passion and policy.” Dr. Moore McBride said, “We have to shift the frame [for civic engagement] and involve politics.” In the question period, the panelists stressed that teaching about political engagement has to be done in a non-partisan way. One of the questions came from a graduate student, who said that through his courses, “I understand power, I can critique [it] – I’m looking for ways to shift power.”

Dr. Hartley said that today, there are glimmerings of “a renewed emphasis on the original democratic dimension,” in the civic engagement movement, seen in such initiatives as The American Democracy Project, Imagining America and the AAC&U’s new report, A Crucible Moment (highlights here). However, encouraging this won’t be easy, with many in higher ed reluctant to do anything remotely political, he concluded.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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