What do civic engagement and civic learning have to do with democratic politics?
The CSU system views “civic engagement” as collaboration between campus and community for the purpose of helping the public identify and respond to the economic, public policy, and social needs of the communities it serves. Civic engagement therefore must have some connection to helping the public identify and respond to the economic, public policy, and social needs of the communities the University serves. Responding to such needs requires that people make decisions and take action collectively. This task lies at the heart of the practice of democratic politics.
If civic engagement is the habit of colleges and universities working in partnership with communities to serve the public good, then faculty, students, and others must be involved in helping the public respond to their communities’ economic, public policy, and social needs. Of course, within the public, people may disagree about what those needs are or about the best way of meeting them. If they do, civic engagement may require involvement in politics.
Understandably, people may balk at this conclusion. If “politics” is equated with partisan conflict, constant maneuvering to gain and hold on to power, disregard for others’ legitimate interests and for the interests of all, using rhetoric to manipulate public opinion, and other familiar examples of selfish, uncivil behavior, we can scarcely fault anyone for wanting to avoid it. Responsible engagement with the public life of our communities and society doesn’t require that we get into politics, as “politics” is usually understood. But it does require that we talk, and listen, and make choices—together. Whether the context is a classroom, or a neighborhood, or a community organization, or a legislative arena, the need to make choices leads to politics. Politics just is the making of choices. Because choice is an inescapable part of life, politics is inevitable. We can’t avoid politics. What we can do is decide what kind of politics we will have. Democratic politics requires that we reclaim responsibility for our communities and society, and that we reassert ourselves as the joint authors of the life we live in common.
Democracy is not working for others, but working with them—working with them to achieve outcomes we can’t accomplish alone. Historically, Americans have learned democracy through on-the-job-training, as it were. Today, just as it was when de Tocqueville wrote in the 1830s about American democracy, it’s in the voluntary sector—not in government, and not in business—where most Americans learn the attitudes and acquire the know-how that democracy depends on. The voluntary associations people join offer experience in working with others, deliberating, negotiating, and making decisions together.
Civic engagement and civic learning must afford students opportunities to acquire the civic skills and attitudes they need in order to participate effectively in the public life of the community, to become citizens who are prepared to enter with their fellows into a partnership for self-governance.
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