Civic Knowledge and Engagement: Aren’t Both Essential?
In recent postings, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) raises the specter that civic literacy—defined as knowledge of the answers on the U.S. citizenship test—is lacking among today’s college students. The more important question is not whether students should know a few basic facts about the United States government and its history. (That answer, for me, is yes.) The question is whether retention of basic facts is the best mechanism by which to develop an informed and active citizenry. As John Bransford and colleagues note in How People Learn (1999):
Above all, information and knowledge are growing at a far more rapid rate than ever before in the history of humankind. …More than ever, the sheer magnitude of human knowledge renders its coverage by education an impossibility; rather, the goal of education is better conceived as helping students develop the intellectual tools and learning strategies needed to acquire the knowledge that allows people to think productively about history, science and technology, social phenomena, mathematics, and the arts (1999, p. 5).
One example: as an undergraduate, I made my way through two survey courses in art history, where exams consisted of looking at slides, flashed on a screen for five seconds, and writing down the name of the artwork, the artist, and the date the work was created. I did well on these tests because I memorized enough information to fill the Louvre, but I could not recall 98 percent of it the day after the exam (and that is true to this day).
On the other hand, I will never forget walking into my first upper-level art history course, on Cubism, and having the professor explain that the days of slide-testing were over. The course was about examining ideas, historical influences, and the role of the artist in society, he said, and we could look up the facts we needed to do this examination. I felt like I had finally arrived in college. And to this day, I know a lot about the time in which Picasso painted, his artistic trajectory, and the complicated influence of African art and cultures on his work.
This, I think, is the more important educational goal—to help students to access knowledge as it has been developed, to ask about its use and consequences, and to discover its limits. It also involves taking responsibility for the facts, for their origins, for their accuracy, and for what, and who, is not included in them. With regard to civic literacy, I think the fact that George Washington was the first president of the United States matters less than the course he charted for this country as its first leader, the quest for democracy that shaped this country’s origins, and the moral gaps of the day that allowed people to be held as slaves.
This past week, nearly five hundred people gathered in Minneapolis and explored this more complex educational challenge of preparing students to be knowledgeable and engaged citizens at AAC&U’s Educating for Personal and Social Responsibility conference. At the conference, AAC&U also released a report, Civic Responsibility: What is the Campus Climate for Learning?, that sheds interesting light on the progress and challenges in preparing students for engaged and mindful citizenship. ACTA, in another comment on the coverage of this report, expressed its “happiness” that AAC&U was shining a spotlight on the “lousy job” colleges are doing. We certainly did not use such sweeping language, but we did note that relatively few students completing the survey on which the report is based (conducted of 24,000 students on twenty-three campuses) strongly agreed that contributing to a larger community is a major focus on their campus. Does this equal a lousy job? As you’ll see in the report, the job is less lousy than incomplete. For instance, there are many charitable activities, community-oriented organizations, and volunteer opportunities offered to students, but the array of choices can seem like the world’s largest take-out menu. And when students enter their majors and the “real” work of college starts to hit, students too often just put down the menu altogether.
On the issue of civic knowledge—as distinct from engagement—we also found that there is a gap between campuses’ broad encouragement of civic engagement and their promotion of specific knowledge about important public issues. About half of all faculty and 45 percent of students strongly agreed that their campus promotes the value of contributing to the community. Only 37.7 percent of faculty and 40.4 percent of students strongly agreed that their campus actively promotes awareness of U.S. social, political, and economic issues.
The real message, however, of both the recent meeting and AAC&U’s report is that students, faculty, and leaders at colleges of all sorts believe that civic knowledge and engagement are important goals of college. And, while much more work needs to be done, many campuses are developing robust programs that advance both civic knowledge and engagement.
Resources from the Educating for Personal and Social Responsibility conference will be posted online in the coming weeks.