the new civic mission in higher education
Wrapping up my guest blogging stint, I thought I’d take a look forward at my new project on deep democracy initiatives in higher education. I didn’t touch on the important role of higher education in the public engagement industry much in DIY Democracy—in part because it felt like a whole other topic, but largely because leaders in deliberation and democracy centers, initiatives, and networks in the academy (including Martin Carcasson, John Gastil, Peter Levine, Nancy Thomas, and Tim Shaffer) are doing so much great research on their own efforts. Since there’s already an Initiative for the Study of Higher Education and Public Life, the lesser-studied elements of the public engagement industry seemed worth exploring first.
But eventually I became convinced that there was an interesting organizational story to tell about these democracy initiatives and the contexts of their emergence. On the one hand, the landscape appears to be populated by lots of local, small, diverse organizational projects—Centers for Civic Life, Public Life, Civic Engagement, Democratic Engagement, etc. at colleges and universities of all sizes and types. But at the same time, deep democracy initiatives are promoted at the national level by higher ed associations, foundations, and the federal government. Here, for example, is video from the White House’s January 2012 “For Democracy’s Future: Education Reclaims Our Civic Mission” Forum.
The discourses of center mission statements and national democracy initiatives regarding what higher ed civic engagement should look like are remarkably similar, recognizable from Nina Eliasoph’s “empowerment projects” and the deliberative democracy initiatives in my own book. For example, see Imagining America’s Undergrad Civic Professionalism Project. By invoking democracy and engagement, these projects seek to produce civic action that is:
accountable to all stakeholders
This demanding list obviously reflects a sensitivity to critiques of the shallow, paternalistic, short-term community service projects of the past—and even to critiques of “service learning” as superficial or inadequately integrated with the curriculum and the community. Civic engagement in this conceptualization goes beyond service to include various kinds of student leadership, activism, democratic participation and social entrepreneurship. In addition, assessment is central to today’s civic engagement in higher education—and even this assessment must be conducted democratically and with community input. Needless to say, accomplishing all of this is a tall order for directors of civic engagement centers.
What is your sense of the organizational interests and anxieties motivating this 21st-century version of civic engagement for millennials and their professors? How do these differ from prior popular missions in the American academy? How similar are these values to those in initiatives for civic engagement in higher ed in other countries? Drawing on Eliasoph’s work on the ways empowerment projects’ values may clash, where do you see room for potential conflict or difficulties in achieving all of these ideals at the same time? For those early risers who can’t get enough of this topic, come to the Political Discourse panel at 8:30AM this Saturday at ASA!