How does civic engagement relate to the purposes of higher education?
Higher education has several purposes. These purposes complement each other.
One purpose is to prepare students for a job or career; in particular, to prepare them for work that will enable them to live independent lives and to be “net-contributors” to the economic well-being of their communities and society.
A second purpose of higher education is the search for (or construction of) new knowledge. In college, faculty introduce students to the various bodies of knowledge that scholars have created—the “disciplines.” Faculty endeavor to teach students not only the knowledge that has been accumulated but also the intellectual strategies, methods, and skills they rely on to generate new knowledge.
A third purpose of higher education is to shape students into members of society who possess not only factual knowledge and the ability to think, but also experience, the ability to make sound judgments, and skill in working collaboratively with others. Whether they live their lives as “ordinary citizens” or become leaders in their professions, communities, and society, people who can make sense of the world and will act responsibly and ethically in it are one of higher education’s important contributions to contemporary life.
Because our society understands itself to be a democratic society, the university—an institution our society has created and sustains—has a prima facie duty to connect the work of faculty and students with efforts to promote freedom, justice, independence, reciprocity, equality, responsibility, participation in public policy discussion and decision-making, the realization of individual human potential, and other values that democracy embodies, aspires to, and depends upon. Along with the legacy bequeathed to younger generations by their predecessors comes the duty to help realize the promise of democracy: to accept responsibility both as individuals and as members of their communities and society for the well-being of all; to make sound personal and public judgments; and to take action, both individually and collectively, as the needs and circumstances of the age warrant.
It’s important to recall that the earliest institutions of higher education in America were founded with a conscious commitment to the moral and civic development of young adults. From the chartering in 1650 of Harvard College as an institution that would “conduce to the education of the English and Indian youth of this country, in knowledge and godliness,” to the 76 “land grant universities” established in 1862 by the Morrill Act, education for all has been a central tenet of American democratic thought. In the words of Benjamin Barber, “the university does not have a civic mission; the university is a civic mission.”
Chico State’s commitment to civic engagement grows out of the conviction that knowledge and “know-how” are indispensable to supporting the society that creates and sustains higher education as an institution. Through civic engagement, the university strives to help students become members of a democratic public who possess the knowledge, skills, values, and attitudes they require in order to become and remain good stewards of their democratic inheritance. As President Paul Zingg puts it, “we educate students not just to make a living, but to make a life. …[Our charge is] to support student learning and [to] enable our institutions to serve. …This is what universities should be doing and must be doing every day.” To this end, Chico State strives to help students and faculty see themselves as full members of the communities the University serves and to develop their democratic civic capacity.
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