|October 14, 1999
Volume 30 Number 5
|A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico|
The Engaged University: Serving and Learning
My eighth-grade teacher, Mr. Wick, decided that because it was a presidential election year, the class should have an opportunity to participate in the great American ritual of voting. Little booths were set up in the classroom, with pencils and real ballots provided. When it was my turn to go in and mark the ballot, I was astounded. The ballot not only had the names of the two presidential candidates; it had the names of other people, offices, and propositions I had never heard of. I had understood, somehow, that I was supposed to make an informed decision, so I read the ballot, tried to remember the names of candidates my parents had talked about, and carefully read the propositions on the ballot. Soon, the children behind me began to complain I was taking too long, and the teacher removed me from the booth, my ballot still in hand.
My next notable experience with democracy occurred when I was 21, the first time I was eligible to vote. I looked at the ballot, found there were blank spaces for a couple of offices, and voted for myself. About a month later I got a letter from the local election board informing me that I had tied for two offices and I was to come down and participate in a drawing to determine whether or not I would be the winner.
What did I learn from these two experiences, other than to hurry in the voting booth and, if you are going to vote for yourself, to get at least one friend to vote for you? What I understood was that I had better not take voting behavior as a measure of whether or not democracy will be sustained in this country.
The United States is unique among Western democracies and industrialized nations. Americans are at the bottom of the list when it comes to participating in elections. Other statistics and trends also raise concerns. Close to 75 percent of U.S. citizens say they don't trust the government. Membership in churches, unions, the PTA, bowling leagues, fraternal organizations -- all organizations that require actual participation and engagement with other people -- has dropped consistently since the late 1960s. Robert Putnam believes this lack of connection to one another will lead to a future in which no one cares about or works to sustain the democratic order.
The concern about America's special nature and the tension which exists between our celebrated individualism, freedom, and materialism and the need to maintain a strong civic culture, which encourages full participation in the body politic, is not a new one. The young Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville, who visited America in the early 1830s, spoke eloquently about what he saw as the problem. He was concerned that people in America would see themselves as solely responsible for their own destinies, so that they would be cut off from the past, and thus from a future. According to him, each man is forever thrown back on himself alone, and there is danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart. Such a people may have no understanding of how to protect the private realm and the liberties they cherish. Individual liberty can only be sustained through collective work. Democracy doesn't just happen; it is created and sustained because people work together. A major problem with contemporary civil life in America, says Alexander Astin, is that too few of our citizens are actively engaged in efforts to affect positive social change.
How are we to deal with the challenge of getting people to want to work together for the common good? What obligation does a university have to both encourage participation in civic life, and to itself become actively involved in the civic arena? There is evidence that the social fabric of American society is frayed, with gaps growing between rich and poor, between those with knowledge and opportunity and those without. It is argued that universities have a key responsibility to help repair the damage, reaching out to the communities in which they reside and which ultimately sustain them. Universities, from this perspective, have two related objectives: to prepare students for citizenship in a diverse world, and to develop knowledge which would lead to the improvement of communities and societies. The new university will be an engaged university, embracing its civic responsibilities.
It is clear that CSU, Chico has a long and proud tradition of training citizens and leaders. The fourth priority in the university's strategic plan makes this clear. Believing in the value of service to others, we will continue to serve the educational, cultural, and economic needs of Northern California. We have done so in ways almost too numerous to list: through student involvement in CAVE, CLIC, Mini Corps, Upward Bound, America Reads, MESA, the mentoring program in Pre-Collegiate Academic Development, by students serving as officers in the Associated Students, through involvement in SIFE, through our Internship and Experiential Learning programs, through the service-learning opportunities provided by the Dye Creek Project, as well as the service-learning courses offered by many instructors. The entire institution has made a commitment to helping create high-quality learning environments both inside and outside of the classroom, and encourages the integration of in- and out-of-class experience. Everyone wants students to learn and become good citizens. Is there a best way to do this?
Service learning is often offered as a way to produce students who care, and who will stay involved once they graduate. There are many definitions of service learning, but generally it refers to an integration of programs and courses in a university with service projects in the community. There is a blending of instruction and action, where insight into abstract concepts and course material is provided by a connection to the larger world. A student can come to understand the meaning of poverty, for example, by helping people seek public aid, or helping them find housing and a nutritious meal. There is strong documented evidence that service learning works. Students learn better and retain the content matter of the course; they want to serve; they understand diverse perspectives, feel a sense of empowerment, and report an increase in levels of self-awareness (Eyler and Giles, 1999). Service learning builds a bridge between the public and the private.
The sociologist C. Wright Mills once wrote about the importance of translating private troubles into clear public issues. The reason for doing so, he understood, was that if people believe their problems stem from their own private circumstances, they can become paralyzed by a sense of impotence, rage, and cynicism. But private troubles can have public causes, causes that can be addressed collectively. Serving others, understanding their concerns, trying to help them allows people to gain the knowledge they need to avoid such cynicism. It is through the connection between the classroom and the community, through service to others, that students can apply knowledge critically and analytically to understand the world in which they live. Service learning means that we can act to strengthen the social fabric. -- Scott McNall, Provost
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