Thursday, March 8th, 2012In January, the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement released its “national call to action,” “A Crucible Moment: College Learning & Democracy’s Future.” As we noted at the time, the report “urges every college and university to foster a civic ethos that governs campus life, make civic literacy a goal for every graduate, integrate civic inquiry within majors and general education, and advance civic action as lifelong practice.”
Massachusetts, it seems, is trying to take that call seriously: the state will soon require that all of its public colleges begin measuring civic engagement and comparing those results with colleges in other states. As Mitch Smith at Inside Higher Ed writes,
Civic engagement is starting to gain broader support in higher education, [president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities Carol Geary] Schneider said, but Massachusetts’s requirement takes that a step further. “It’s one thing to say we’re teaching this,” she said, “it’s another to say we intend to report the results and in doing so to put civic learning on the front page as an expected college outcome.”
Richard Freeland, the Massachusetts Commissioner of Higher Education, said Tuesday’s unanimous vote came after faculty members at several institutions pushed for a civic engagement component to the state’s Vision Project, which seeks to position the state’s public colleges among the nation’s best. By adding civic engagement to a list of five desired outcomes, including the percentage of high school graduates attending college and the percentage of students earning a degree, he believes colleges will focus more on making better citizens.
It isn’t clear yet how the state’s Department of Higher Education plans to track civic engagement, though Freeland suggested evaluations based on how well colleges emphasize and teach knowledge of the Constitution, government, and history, as well as afford extracurricular opportunities for students’ own personal civic engagement.
These evaluations sound simple enough, but as CIRCLE’s Peter Levine noted in relation to federal government surveys that try to measure civic engagement, much more fundamental disagreements come into play when determining what the term civic engagement even means and how to measure it:
Civic engagement is not one or more psychological constructs. It is a set of behaviors, values, and attitudes possessed by members of a community. One needs a conceptual and normative scheme to decide which ones should count.
To the extent that empirical data are relevant, I think the most important question is which set of behaviors correlates with good social outcomes at a community level. For example, what levels of protest, membership, public work, debate, and charity are socially optimal? But note that the definition of a “good” social outcome is contentious, and we are engaging civically when we debate it. Social benefits are not simply outcomes of civic engagement. Instead, civic engagement affects which outcomes we pursue (and measure). This circularity makes it impossible to pick the measures of civic engagement that are the best predictors of good outcomes for individuals or communities.
Still, despite this difficulty, it is exciting to see states like Massachusetts take civic learning seriously. As Schneider notes, “This is the world’s most powerful democracy and, educationally, society has put democracy on autopilot and hoped for the best. [...] For Massachusetts to take the lead on this is a very important portent of better things to come for our democracy.”