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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

Why is civic learning important?

There are civic beliefs, attitudes, dispositions, and skills that can be learned only through the experience of acting in the democratic public arena (which is not confined to governmental and political institutions, but includes the public or civic “spaces” where citizens gather to matters of shared concern about their neighborhoods, communities, society, and world). 

Recognizing that the social, economic, and political reality of our communities, society, and world is largely of our own (collective) making and to some important degree within our control to change, we must strive to help students build new, or expanded, or revised models they can enact.  Enacting a new reality requires not only knowledge, but also relevant experience, motivation, skills (e.g., communication, negotiation), and a host of character “assets,” such as empathy, determination, self-discipline, patience, flexibility, ingenuity, and respect for others.  These are best acquired—perhaps only acquired—through community-based experiential learning.

Moreover, civic learning has a positive impact on several aspects of overall student development:

  • Students who participate in community service substantially increase their academic progress, gain life skills, and develop a feeling of responsibility for their community and society.   (Astin, Alexander W. and Sax, Linda J.  1998.  “How Undergraduates Are Affected by Service Participation.”  Journal of College Student Development, 39(3): 251-263.)
  • …Participation in community service when people are young helps them construct an image of themselves as adults who are responsible for sustaining their community’s well-being and who are able to take effective action.   (Youniss, James and McLellan, Jeffrey A.  1997.  “What We Know About Engendering Civic Identity.”  The American Behavioral Scientist.  Mar/Apr 1997.  Vol. 40.  No. 5.)
  • Service and civic learning improve students’ ability to apply learning in “the real world” and have a positive impact on complexity of understanding, problem analysis, critical thinking, and cognitive development.  (Billig, Shelley.  2003.  “Impact of Service-Learning on Michigan Students’ Academic Outcomes.”  Denver, Colorado:  RMC Research Corporation.  www.servicelearning DocServer/MEAP_Evaluation_SB.ppt?docID=321 
  • Service and civic learning:

(1)  Help students develop stronger relationships with faculty.

(2)  Improve students’ satisfaction with college.

(3)  Increase the likelihood of graduation.

(4)  Aid in student retention.   (

  • Combining students’ academic coursework with opportunities for authentic (“relevant”) experience enhances both their academic development as well as their readiness to take up their responsibilities as adult members of a democracy.  Academically, they demonstrate significant improvement in several areas:

(1) information literacy;

(2) articulated thinking about civic engagement;

(3) understanding of the connection between the university and public life;

(4) academic engagement; 

(5) civic efficacy; 

(6) positive social and self-perceptions;  and

(7) research-based writing.  (Wolf, Thia et al.  2010.  “Public Sphere Pedagogy”:  Toward a Renewal of the Civic Mission of the American University.”  Proposal to the Keck Foundation. Chico, CA:  California State University)

In short, undergraduate students learn better when they learn in context.  Opportunities for civic experiential learning supply context. 

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