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"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
Margaret Mead

What challenges does democratic civic education face today?

Among the most difficult challenges is recognizing and rewarding scholars for their work in support of civic engagement.  Many institutions of higher education do not reward faculty who participate in community-based research or service-learning by factoring their involvement into tenure and promotion (RTP) decision-making processes.  Formal recognition of faculty work in civic engagement is crucial, because lack of recognition is one of the biggest barriers to obtaining faculty buy-in, especially during the “formative years” of a young scholar’s career.   At present, individual achievement, especially publication in academic journals, is still the most important path to promotion and tenure.  Until colleges and universities adopt civic engagement as a core value and purpose, and in consequence insist that departments do so demonstrably as well, too many academics will keep digging deeper into the esoterica of their particular disciplines while paying scant attention to what’s going on outside the institution’s walls.

Another challenge for civic engagement is how to integrate democratic political knowledge and skills into discipline-based courses that are not in political science or related disciplines.  Although faculty may be interested in the policy dimensions of their discipline, they may be unfamiliar with how to teach the concepts and practices of democratic engagement.  Consequently, even faculty members who embrace the notion of service learning as a crucial supplement to disciplinary content may lack the strategies and techniques needed to develop their students’ civic capacities. 

There are also ideological challenges.  For some people, for example, the concept of “social justice” implies taking sides and is often associated with partisan liberal activism.  These folks resist linking civic engagement and social justice.  They cite numerous efforts by various organizations and interest groups to limit or eliminate courses that appear to promote a liberal political agenda.[1] 

Butin (2006) suggests that “service learning [understood] as a progressive and liberal agenda under the guise of a universal transformative practice” runs the risk of being attacked or misappropriated.  He contends that conservatives can argue that “service learning offices are indoctrinating first-year students into biased, unscientific, and indefensible liberal group-think practices.”  He concludes that the political dimension of service learning is caught in a no-win situation.  On one hand, service learning faces criticism, censure, and sanctions if it incorporates liberal traditions of political transformation.  On the other hand, if it remains apolitical or politically balanced, service learning is limited in making any real differences in society. 

Such charges can be seen for what they are—rhetorical weapons for undermining the practice of democracy—if we hold fast to the principle that “when all are affected, all must decide.”  If support for democracy is “biased,” then we ought to acknowledge our commitment to this foundational principle and ask critics to explain why we should refrain from teaching it.  Civic engagement as an educational strategy must have a democratic political orientation that places at its core the cultivation of judgment and the acquisition of the skills and dispositions that make it possible for a group of citizens to arrive at a coherent collective judgment.  Here, “political” is not connected, as it typically is in common parlance, with “partisan politics” or with “influencing government.”  Rather, it means “having to do with the collective making of choices for the good of the polis (in Latin, the civitas)—the community.”


[1] Even topics such as “sustainability,” which from one point of view should be a matter of universal concern, in practice often become a kind of litmus test of ideological predisposition.

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