Department of Education report urges colleges to teach civics

Universities must make civic engagement and knowledge a priority or face the consequences of a struggling democracy, according to a report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education. 

Civic learning includes knowledge of U.S. history, democracy, politics and diverse cultures and prepares students for action in their communities in order to become active citizens.

The National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, which released the report, recommended that Americans “reclaim and reinvest in the fundamental civic and democratic mission of schools and of all sectors within higher education.”

The report, “A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future,” was commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education under the leadership of the Global Perspective Institute Inc. and the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Larry Braskamp, professor emeritus of education at Loyola University Chicago and senior fellow at the AAC&U, said that because many institutions are centered on job training, they lose a focus on civics.

“What we’re interested in is students understanding that they are part of a bigger world and community,” Braskamp said. “We’re hoping it’s not just one course (on civics). We’re hoping that it permeates the campus.”

Braskamp said in general, Jesuit universities have a strong focus on civic learning because it fits with their mission and views on social responsibility.

Kim Jensen-Bohat, director of Marquette’s service learning program, said civic learning is a key component to the university’s outreach to the community.

Bohat said service learning sends about 1,400 students — almost 20 percent of the campus — out into the community each semester.

She said service learning at Marquette engages the community in ways specific to different majors and courses. For example, a class in the College of Business Administration creates databases for community organizations and a broadcasting class in the College of Communication creates marketing and promotional videos.

Marquette’s dedication to civic and service learning has gained national attention.

“I know Marquette has a very strong student service program,” said Elizabeth Hollander, former executive director of Campus Compact, a national coalition of over 1,100 university presidents dedicated to promoting service and civic engagement.

Marquette was one of the founding members of the Wisconsin chapter of Campus Compact.

She said the campus itself can promote civics by engaging the community surrounding it and discussing local issues. Faculty can also lend research to public problem-solving and can use that research to help the community.

Many schools are taking action to promote civics, Hollander said, but they are not making it a central theme as this report recommends they do.

Trevor Gundlach, a student coordinator for service learning and a sophomore in the College of Arts & Sciences, said he believes Marquette’s dedication to civics involvement is commendable.

“I believe Marquette’s service learning program is very, very well run and looked on fondly by other universities,” Gundlach said.

He said civic engagement is definitely an important issue in higher education.

“I believe that change will only begin if the educational system revamps,” he said.