Rethinking Civic Engagement in Higher Ed

By Matt Whitt

A lot of what passes for civic engagement at colleges and universities can be better described as civic involvement. Civic engagement centers on a problem or issue of concern, a site where a student hopes to bring about change. Civic involvement centers on an opportunity for participation, such as a fellowship, service requirement, club, or call for volunteers. These two approaches to civic participation are illustrated by teacher-student interactions that will likely be familiar to other professors.

“The Conversation”

I’ve started calling it “the conversation.” Near the end of the semester, a student appears at my office looking hesitant. Once the student is seated and we’ve discussed how they are doing, the student moves us toward “the conversation” by way of a familiar script. First, the student expresses appreciation for the class and says that they are learning a lot about complex social problems such as economic inequality, racism, or mass incarceration.* Next, their voice slows as they admit that they have never thought so much about these problems. I assure the student that most people haven’t, either. Buoyed by this, and picking up speed, the student says that they really do appreciate academic scholarship and can understand why someone would want to bring political philosophy to bear on pressing social issues. Then the student blurts out something like, “But-what-can-I-do-to-reallymakeadifference?!”

I enjoy “the conversation” in all its variations. I like the confident “I want to get involved!” version. I like the morose “But these problems seem so big…” version. I especially love last semester’s version, when a first-year undergraduate woman researching inequality in the justice system asked, “Who’s already working on this, and how can I collaborate with them?”

What I appreciate about the conversation, in any variation, is that students are directly responding to issues they studied in our course, selecting their own approach to those issues, and using the course as a springboard for civic engagement on their own terms.

Compare “the conversation” to another recent meeting.

Civic Participation in Form, But Not Content

Having agreed to write a recommendation letter for a student’s application to a “leadership incubator,” I met with him to discuss his aims. I especially wanted some clarification on his personal statement, in which he expressed his desire to lead, conveyed confidence in his leadership abilities, and recounted his relevant experience. Nowhere did he mention which specific leadership opportunities he sought, whom he wanted to lead, or even what issues, problems, or events motivated him. In our meeting, he seemed surprised that I even asked. He told me that he is an effective leader, that he likes to lead, and that this opportunity would help him do so. He assured me that he wanted “to get involved,” but when he left my office, I still wasn’t sure what he wanted to get involved with. The student’s emphasis on the mechanics of civic participation—all form, no content—reflects a wider trend in how higher education invites and trains students to be active citizens.

Civic Engagement Is More than Showing Up

These two interactions highlight a meaningful difference in ways that colleges and universities might prepare students for a life of active citizenship. The student in the first conversation was motivated toward civic engagement because she found something disturbing in our society’s current practices, and she wanted to make a difference. The student in the second conversation was motivated toward something like civic engagement for very different reasons. He was responding to an opportunity offered by our institution. In seeking to take advantage it, he was being savvy—doing something that would benefit him both professionally and personally. And yet, it would be wrong to drape his endeavor with the mantle of civic engagement. Let’s call it “civic involvement.”

The salient difference is this. For civic engagement, students must identify a problem, and this means they must be aware of inadequacies, inequalities, and injustices—the friction between the way the world is, and the ways they believe it ought to be. For civic involvement, this is not necessary. Instead, students must merely sign up or show up.

Although civic involvement can sometimes backfire, there is nothing wrong with it per se. We want our students to look beyond the university, to get their hands wet, to help out in the community. But a problem arises when we encourage involvement at the expense of genuine civic engagement. Even worse, we sometimes focus so much on opportunities for involvement that we forget to teach the skills necessary for engagement.

Civic engagement requires sensitivity to needs and grievances. It requires the ability to detect social problems, to weigh morally significant alternatives, to self-reflectively listen to others, and to critically assess competing narratives of how things ought to be. These capabilities are often overlooked when we focus on civic involvement, not least because they can complicate the zeal and conviction that involvement requires. Civic engagement is difficult, in part, because it often means not being the leader of the solution; sometimes, it means recognizing that you have been part of the problem. However, if we want to educate for civic engagement—or more, for the ideal of “active citizenship” that civic engagement is often said to foster—we need to pursue this difficult work intentionally and reflectively.

This semester in my LAMP blog posts, I will document some of the ways I am struggling with this work in a first-year writing seminar called “Land of the Free: Liberty, Justice, and Imprisonment in the United States.” Hopefully, these particular and concrete experiences will contribute to a wider dialogue about how professors can educate students for reflective engagement.

* To respect the diversity of my students, I prefer to use the gender-neutral, non-binary pronoun “they” when referring generically to “a student,” or to particular students who prefer that usage.

IMAGE CREDIT: Photo by Ronile is licensed under CC0 1.0


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Matt S. Whitt uses political theory and philosophy to examine the acts of inclusion and exclusion that democratic communities use to define themselves. At Duke, he teaches two first-year writing seminars: “‘We the People’ and the Boundaries of Democracy,” and “Land of the Free: Liberty, Justice, and Imprisonment in the United States.” His other scholarly projects can be found here.