Should Civic Engagement be a Priority for Higher Education?

Submitted by: John Converse Townsend on 10/05/12

Editor's note: This post was written by Kylee Talwar, student at Rice University and intern at Ashoka.

This is the sixth post in a series where we share the conversations between higher education leaders that came together during Everyone a Changemaker Week. They discussed the role of social innovation as a significant lever for the relevancy of higher education in a time when many claim that colleges and universities are becoming obsolete. This series delves into how higher education may be our best bet for empowering society to innovate at the rate the world is changing.

One of the primary functions of higher education is to train the next generation of leaders. One of the most important steps for doing this is focusing more on fulfilling higher education’s civic mission.

How does a university’s focus on a civic mission connect to the larger goal of training leaders? Why should civic engagement be considered a priority for education, and not just a value-added benefit?

It's important to determine how to convince trustees, faculty and students that civic engagement is an essential part of the learning experience, and not an optional extracurricular interest. Answering these questions requires us to agree that civic engagement must also incorporate civic learning.

This type of education isn’t important only because it makes the world a better place. Civic engagement is important because it’s good learning.

The next challenge is figuring out how to align incentives to encourage a culture of civic engagement at an institution. Part of the answer involves tying civic learning to increasing student success and employability.

We must create a demand by employers for civic engagement in their new hires. As we attempt this, we might be misled into trying to create ways to quantify the value of civic engagement.

But “not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted,” to quote a saying attributed to Albert Einstein. It’s about transformation and creating a well-rounded individual—and you can’t put a number on that.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s step back and ask what it even means to be engaged in a community. In today’s global age, the boundaries of communities are more porous than ever.

We must learn to embrace a community that extends past the immediate campus neighborhood, and instead include people from across the globe. A student in an American college could be working on a project that focuses on social innovation in India.

Most important, we must be collaborative and reciprocal, and focus on the needs of a community—not as the institution defines it, but as the community itself defines its own needs.

We need to widen our perception of civic engagement so that it includes a global community that has agency to identify its own wants and needs. We need to see this learning as a means of adding value to student development.

And we need to convince employers to demand civic engagement in new hires. In doing these things, we can transform the role of civic engagement in universities and, thus, better fulfill the civic mission of these institutions.