The Next “Evolution” of Civic Learning

Civic learning and democratic engagement are near ubiquitous in higher education, with postsecondary institutions embracing their responsibility to prepare students for active and informed participation in their communities. This work, aimed at civic renewal, seeks to develop graduates who will do their part to ensure a robust democracy.

Scholars and practitioners have spent much of the last thirty years outlining best practices and identifying the outcomes that result when these practices are implemented. Civic learning initiatives have been shown to yield higher grade point averages, a greater acceptance of diversity, and a desire to contribute to the common good. And while we have seen an expansion of programs, opportunities, and experiences in colleges and universities that promote civic learning and democratic engagement, data from the Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) survey still shows that nearly 45 percent of the college students responding to the survey (N = 19,728) report spending zero hours contributing to the community.

Despite its pervasiveness, there is still a significant gap in the reach of civic learning initiatives. So, the initiatives profiled in this issue represent an important step in the work to ensure a broader reach and a deeper connection to civic learning and demonstrate that civic opportunities and motivations exist across our institutions. Civic learning and democratic engagement are multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary—allowing for these initiatives to thrive in multiple spaces on our campuses. Centering this work within departments and academic units allows faculty to embrace the civic dimensions of their disciplines. It creates linkages between civic learning and civic professions—supporting students in understanding how they might contribute to the public good through occupations connected to their academic studies. It also generates ongoing opportunities for students and instructors to engage in dialogues that might emerge, persist, and evolve as they encounter each other in classes throughout their academic careers.

And while this deepening of civic learning through academic departments and majors ensures that students will be challenged to reflect on the civic possibilities for their lives as college students and after, it does not yet ensure that our improved civic opportunities on campus yield civic benefits beyond our institutional walls. We know our students will benefit, but what will it mean for the communities where this work most often happens?

Civic learning initiatives should aim not only to support students in understanding their civic responsibility and the civic possibilities for our increasingly diverse democracy, but should also aim to be responsive to the social and community concerns that limit civic engagement. These initiatives should also work to alleviate those concerns with the recognition that full and inclusive engagement in civic life shapes the robust democracy we seek.

Therefore, as we consider the spaces in our own institutions where these kinds of engaged departments might thrive, let us ensure we are also considering the ways we might engage so that our communities also thrive.

  • Are we creating spaces and opportunities to build civic leadership and civic agency in our communities as well as in our student body?
  • Do community members believe us when we say we want to help? Why or why not?
  • Are our civic efforts responsive to issues identified by community members?
  • Do we engage the members of the community most impacted by the issues we are addressing?
  • Are the actions we are taking those that communities have asked of us?
  • Do community members (co-)lead those efforts?
  • Are we acting in ways that truly effect change on those community-identified issues?

It feels important that the next “evolution” of civic learning asks not only how we do this work well in our institutions, but how we ensure these efforts yield the best possible civic outcomes—not just for our students, but also for the communities where this work happens.


Tania D. Mitchell, Associate Professor of Higher Education, University of Minnesota

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