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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 does civic engagement have to do with scholarly research?

Beginning in the 19th century, and largely in response to the growing influence of science (resulting from steady and dramatic advances in factual knowledge and technological know-how), scholars have tried to develop increasingly complete and accurate models (descriptions) of the natural and human worlds;  to provide neutral, “value-free” explanations of why those worlds have the features and characteristics they exhibit;  and to identify the rules or principles that will enable us to predict changes in those features and characteristics.  Institutions of higher education aspire to transmit the knowledge generated by scholar-researchers to persons having an interest in acquiring and applying that knowledge in non-university careers or professions, or to persons who will become university-based scholar-researchers themselves.   

Civic learning and scholarly (academic) learning more generally have at least three characteristics in common:

1.  The nature of knowledge

The well-known Jainist fable of the blind men and the elephant helps illustrate the connection between learning, knowledge (of constructed reality), and inquiry by a community of inquirers.  Only a community can aspire to something like knowledge, whether it’s knowledge of what is, has been, or might be, or whether it’s knowledge of what’s good and bad, right and wrong, desirable and undesirable, etc.  Like the nature of the elephant, or “reality,” the nature of knowledge about it has to be constructed.  Human beings draw on their needs and experience to construct models, or representations, of the physical and social “reality” they inhabit.

But no single perspective on “reality” can ever suffice, because “reality” is constructed from many subjective perspectives.  If any is left out, the composite picture will be incomplete.  Each inquirer must contribute his or her experience, insight, creativity, and so on to the whole.  In order to form a more-complete picture of “reality,” people must expand their personal perspectives to include others’ perspectives.  The more extensive the overlap, the more complete the picture.  

Benjamin Barber argues that that the disciplinary specialization that predominates in higher education today takes us deeper into particular perspectives, but at the cost of moving further and further away from completeness.  Knowledge and learning require context for completeness.  Part of that context is the perspectives of other inquirers;  in this case, students who supposedly are being educated to live effectively in the context they inhabit.  Isolating knowledge and learning with the traditional classroom in which disciplinary content is delivered more-or-less uni-directionally prevents them from “constructing the elephant” they need to be working on, and instead asks them to focus so narrowly that they in effect develop tunnel-vision, which we might say is a form of “blindness.”

The overlapping of partial perspectives—“mutual comprehension”—is achieved through dialogue—interpersonal and inter-group communication that emphasizes listening in order to understand.  

2.  The type of thinking knowledge requires

In their professional work, scholars are expected to meet high standards of openness, clarity, precision, complexity, and nuance of thought and speech.  Many of these qualities are desirable in the civic work people must perform in their role as members of self-governing communities.  There is thus a connection between academic disciplinary norms and the quality of public thinking and discussion people in a democracy need in order to make judgments (e.g., in matters of fiscal and monetary policy, foreign policy, health and social welfare policy, environmental policy, education policy, criminal justice policy, and so forth).

Kirlin (2006) identifies four types of skills that students should acquire through their college education.  All four skills are valuable for both academic and civic work: 

Organization.  These skills are necessary for accomplishing tasks, for knowing how to work effectively in a group setting.  They include organizing individuals to take action, planning and running meetings, and planning for action. 

Communication.   These skills are needed to facilitate mutual comprehension, collective inquiry, and deliberation within a group.  They include knowing how to write and speak articulately and persuasively. 

Collective decision-making.  These skills are needed for producing agreement within a group that will motivate and sustain action.  They include knowing, discussing,  and proposing different decision rules;  listening in order to comprehend, and to form useful questions;  imaginatively entering into alternate perspectives based on different experiences, concerns, and needs; framing problems and issues;  identifying/ generating options for action;  weighing advantages and disadvantages;  moving toward a collective judgment.

Critical thinking.  The skills required to construct sound, persuasive arguments;  to assess factual assertions and the consequences of proposed actions;  to identify weaknesses in inductive and deductive reasoning ;  to surface underlying assumptions;  to differentiate between facts and value;  to elicit sound judgment in choosing between values.

Judgment.  A fifth skill, suggested by Gagnon (1988), should be added to this list: judgment.  “…We demand judgment of all professionals, and we need it most in the profession of citizen. 

3.  The responsibility to ensure that knowledge is used responsibly

In 1940, the American Association of University Professors stated that “…institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole.”

The National Science Education Standards established by the United States National Center for Education Statistics suggest that citizens ought to be scientifically “literate.”  “Scientific literacy” is “the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision-making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity.”  Scientific literacy means that a person

  • can ask, find, or determine answers to questions derived from curiosity about everyday experiences.
  • has the ability to describe, explain, and predict natural phenomena.
  • is able to read with understanding articles about science in the popular press and to engage in social conversation about the validity of the conclusions.
  • can identify scientific issues underlying national and local decisions and express positions that are scientifically and technologically informed.
  • is able to evaluate the quality of scientific information on the basis of its source and the methods used to generate it.
  • has the capacity to pose and evaluate arguments based on evidence and to apply conclusions from such arguments appropriately.                   

According to William Sullivan, “undergraduate education must go beyond the purely analytical to provide students with experience and guidance in using analytical tools to engage in deliberation about action.  It must provide them with opportunities to bring knowledge and skill together in the pursuit of important practical purposes that contribute to the life of the world.”  The purpose of undergraduate education should be preparing students to use knowledge and skills “as a means toward responsible engagement with the life of their times.”  …Practical reasoning…is…formative education with public responsibility in view.   …The pursuit of practical wisdom is the deeper point of…learning.  …[Undergraduate] education … must provide…students with opportunities to bring…knowledge and skill together in the pursuit of important practical purposes that contribute to the life of the world.” 

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