Civic Responsibility and Service Learning: The Need for Curricular Integration

Elizabeth Larson-Keagy, PhD, Executive Editor
The Journal for Civic Commitment

Adapted with permission by Elizabeth Larson-Keagy, PhD, Executive Editor, The Journal for Civic Commitment, from A Practical Guide for Integrating Civic Responsibility into the Curriculum, edited by Karla Gottlieb and Gail Robinson, American Association of Community Colleges, Washington, D.C., 2002

Defining Civic Responsibility

“If there is a crisis in education in the United States today, it is less that test scores have declined than it is that we have failed to provide the education for citizenship that is still the most significant responsibility of the nation’s schools and colleges” (Newman, 1985).

If community college faculty and administrators are to address effectively the contemporary crisis cited by Frank Newman, they would do well to examine their role in instilling students with the requisite knowledge and skills to become active, effective citizens. This examination should take place on all levels, ranging from the educational institution as a whole to individual classes to specific interactions with students. We begin by considering the goals and purposes of community colleges and then explore what civic responsibility means and how it can be nurtured within the context of higher education.

Goals and Purposes of Community Colleges

In Democracy and Education, John Dewey ([1916] 1966) proposed two radical ideas: first, that all citizens – not just the elite – can have a life of the mind, and second, that lives that are only of the mind are not adequate to meet the demands of democracy. At a fundamental level, Dewey declared that Americans, as citizens, must be engaged both in thought and in action. He argued that education is the key to civic engagement. Therefore, institutions of learning must adequately prepare students for such activity, and should be viewed as microcosms of society that should model community behavior (Ehrlich 2000, 1999).

Using service learning to develop civic responsibility allows community colleges to fulfill their basic mission of providing a quality educational experience and serving the needs of the community.

Since their inception, colleges and universities in the United States have been responsible for developing both knowledge and character in their students (Colby et al. 2000; Komives and Woodard, 1996). In fact, the goal of higher education is not only to prepare students for productive careers, “but also to enable them to live lives of dignity and purpose; not only to generate new knowledge, but to channel that knowledge to humane ends; not merely to study government, but to help shape a citizenry that can promote the public good” (Boyer, 1987). Community colleges in particular have worked to achieve these goals while also remaining accessible and affordable to all who wish to study at these institutions. By nurturing the development of civic responsibility in students, community colleges can help counteract citizen disengagement. To do this, however, opportunities must first exist or be created for citizen involvement in solving public problems (Boyte, 1991). Many students care about the world around them but need to learn how they can affect community issues. Students also need to recognize their own voices, as well as hear and consider the voices of their fellow citizens in the decision-making process. Classroom and service activities that include discussions of civic responsibility can help students hone the skills that are vital to the success of the college and the community at large. Community college faculty and administrators need to examine their institutional mission and assess how well they are fulfilling it. At the very core of community colleges is the call to serve all segments of society and the community (Vaughan, 2000). How evident is this mission in classes, personal interactions, curriculum, and general college activities? To serve the community, institutions must help prepare students to be effective leaders and citizens who understand and embrace the concept of civic responsibility.

What Does Civic Responsibility Mean?

Attempting to define civic responsibility can be a daunting task because of frequently overlapping constructs, values, and interpretations. Indeed, the very mention of the term civic responsibility evokes notions of what it means to live in a democracy, in addition to the complementary ideas of citizenship, social responsibility, civic engagement, and community involvement. In constructing a working definition of civic responsibility, we chose to depict it as an overarching concept that encompasses civic engagement and what it means to be a citizen:

Civic responsibility means active participation in the public life of a community in an informed, committed, and constructive manner, with a focus on the common good.

We encourage you to work with your students to reshape or change this definition entirely to formulate one that works for your class. For example, is anything missing from the definition? What about concepts such as social justice, social change, or respecting the rights of others? Who decides what the “common good” is? Does the notion of the common good include respecting and protecting the rights of others? Does this definition only work in a democracy? Given the working definition, how can faculty make civic responsibility an integral part of their curriculum and potentially affect student learning outcomes? Other definitions of civic responsibility often exhibit some or all of the following characteristics:

  • Addressing society’s problems in an informed manner
  • Showing respect as well as dissent for laws
  • Recognizing the difference between legally defined and culturally defined citizenship
  • Engaging in an active process that goes beyond passive citizenship
  • Establishing a balance between rights and responsibilities
  • Understanding the concept of the common good and who defines it
  • Being able to negotiate differences
  • Involving the community in decision-making processes
  • Embracing the concept of participatory democracy
  • Questioning governmental policies and practices
  • Determining ways to alter public policy
  • Exhibiting stewardship, i.e., being responsible for one’s community
  • Recognizing the value and human dignity of each person
  • Reaching varying degrees of political awareness and advocacy, ranging from basic knowledge (e.g., knowing the local mayor’s name) to developing a voice and making oneself heard

Service Learning and Civic Responsibility

The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) defines service learning asthe combination of community service and classroom instruction, with a focus on critical, reflective thinking as well as personal and civic responsibility.

We believe service learning offers the greatest potential for fostering civic responsibility because it provides opportunities for students to engage directly in their communities and meet community needs while enhancing their course work. It is important that, at the same time, students purposefully explore what civic responsibility means and the importance of both understanding and embracing this concept. With the belief in the potential of service learning in mind, this section addresses several issues and areas of concern.

First, because some college students reflect the pattern of the larger society toward civic disengagement, one of the roles of higher education should be to find ways to renew and strengthen the commitment of students to civic life. It is critically important for the leadership of higher education to call on their institutions to play an active role in civic renewal. However, this renewal will not happen until faculty find ways to engage students in their communities and take the time to help them think critically about the importance of civic responsibility and their role as citizens.

Second, although there are hopeful signs that students, especially those in high school and college, are now more involved in service than in the past, it is not clear whether this service is actually cultivating a greater understanding and commitment to civic responsibility, or indeed how this could be measured (Sax, 2000; Skinner and Chapman, 1999). Here again, higher education can promote civic renewal through innovative initiatives such as service learning.

Third, we are concerned that not enough attention is being paid to service learning’s goal of fostering civic responsibility. Although service learning continues to gain momentum as an important and far-reaching movement in higher education, it seems that faculty and service learning program coordinators are not sufficiently addressing the concept of civic responsibility with their students. Simply involving students in a service experience does not necessarily result in students gaining a better understanding of the importance and complexities of civic responsibility. It is imperative that we help faculty better understand this concept and how it relates to service learning, and provide tools to help them more purposefully integrate learning about civic responsibility into their teaching.

Finally, the increase in immigration experienced by our society in the last two decades has transformed both our communities and our college campuses. Faculty can help recent immigrants and international students find avenues toward wider participation in civil society and understand the values and beliefs that underlie American political and civic life.

Civic Disengagement in Contemporary Society

Much has been written about the growing disengagement of young people from civic life. Robert Putnam’s work is often cited as evidence of the general decline in civic engagement. Based on research using a number of independent data sources, he found that older Americans – specifically those who reached adulthood during the Depression and World War II – have been much more deeply engaged in civic life than the generations that came after them (Putnam, 1996). In subsequent investigations, Putnam discovered that the trend toward civic disengagement has become even more significant since 1985 (Putnam, 2000).

In 1998, the National Commission on Civic Renewal issued a report titled A Nation of Spectators: How Civic Disengagement Weakens America and What We Can Do About It. It concluded:

“Too many of us have become passive and disengaged. Too many of us lack confidence in our capacity to make basic moral and civic judgments, to join with our neighbors to do the work of community, to make a difference. Never have we had so many opportunities for participation, yet rarely have we felt so powerless”. In a time that cries out for civic action, we are in danger of becoming a nation of spectators.”Of special concern in much of this discussion is the disengagement of young people. Student responses to an annual nationwide survey of college freshmen conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute of the University of California – Los Angeles demonstrated the degree of disengagement from certain forms of civic life. For example, interest in politics has plummeted, as measured by students understanding the importance of being informed, voting, and discussing political affairs (Sax, 2000).

According to a recent analysis of voter apathy among different cohorts of young people, there were strong indications that “political disinterest and disengagement are more widespread and deeper than was true of young people in previous decades” (Bennett, 2000).

In response to these trends, the presidents of several colleges and universities from across the nation issued a declaration on the civic responsibility of higher education at a 1999 meeting of Campus Compact, a national organization of college presidents that focuses on civic engagement and service in higher education. They acknowledged that a growing number of students were participating in public and community service, but that these experiences did not necessarily lead them to embrace the duties of active citizenship. The assembled presidents identified a set of related trends among young people: a decline in voter turnout, increased feelings of indifference to political participation, a sense of cynicism, and a growing lack of trust in the political process.

In their declaration, the presidents called on their colleagues to take action against a rising tide of civic disengagement:

“Colleges and universities have long embraced a mission to educate students for citizenship. But now, with over two-thirds of recent high school graduates, and ever larger numbers of adults, enrolling in postsecondary studies, higher education has an unprecedented opportunity to influence the democratic knowledge, dispositions, and habits of the heart that graduates carry with them into the public square. Higher education is uniquely positioned to help Americans understand the histories and contours of our own present challenges as a diverse democracy. It is also uniquely positioned to help both students and our communities to explore new ways of fulfilling the promise of justice and dignity for all, both in our own democracy and as part of the global community. We know that pluralism is a source of strength and vitality that will enrich our students’ education and help them to learn both to respect differences and work together for the common good.” (Campus Compact, 1999)

Some Hopeful Signs

Despite these negative trends, there are some hopeful signs. Young people today show an increased involvement in volunteerism and community service apart from politics. There are many different routes to involvement in the community. The Corporation for National and Community Service, created in 1993, is a federal agency that supports institutional and individual efforts to provide service to local communities. Each year more than a million Americans, young and old, participate in activities and projects funded through the Corporation.

Thanks in part to the Corporation�s support there has been an increase in the number of students – at all levels of education, from primary through higher education – who perform service as part of their school experience. By 1998, a record number (74.2 percent) of college freshmen reported doing volunteer work during their senior year of high school, up from approximately 62 percent in 1988 (Sax, 2000). A growing number of states and school districts require service or service learning as a condition for high school graduation.

In 1999, the Mellman Group conducted a national survey of 800 college students under the age of 31 for the Leon and Sylvia Panetta Institute for Public Policy at California State University at Monterey Bay. The survey results indicated that nearly three-quarters of college students had recently done volunteer work in an organization or for a cause they supported. This same survey also found that young people are significantly less cynical about politics and government than their elders, but they do not necessarily see these institutions as relevant to their lives or the issues that are important to them – something that service learning can help overcome (Panetta Institute, 2000).

While volunteer service provides benefits to both the people who engage in it and the community agencies that receive the help, what is often missing from these experiences is structured reflection that leads to critical thinking about how the service experience is related to the life of the volunteer as an individual and as a community member. One avenue for providing students with such structured support is service learning. While some service is performed through involvement in extracurricular activities such as student government, clubs, religious groups, sports teams, or honor societies, a growing number of students today are introduced to service through service learning in their college classrooms. According to three national surveys conducted by AACC between 1995 and 2001, faculty at nearly 50 percent of all community colleges offer service learning. Another 40 percent of survey respondents indicated an interest in this teaching and learning strategy (Robinson and Barnett, 1996; Phinney, Schoen, and Hause, 2002).

Service learning can be a way for students to connect or re-connect with civic society. By engaging in these activities, they may develop a set of attitudes and behaviors that is consistent with the expectations of citizenship. Sax (2000) suggests that “[i]t is quite possible that students are simply placing their energies where they feel they can make a difference – by getting involved in issues such as education, crime, the environment, and homelessness in their local communities. Given their frustration with political scandals and negative political campaigns, students simply may not perceive politics as an effective vehicle for positive change.”

As a growing body of research indicates, service learning can be a potent civic educator (Battistoni, 2000). Two different studies revealed that participating in service as an undergraduate student significantly enhanced the student’s sense of civic responsibility, academic development, and overall life skill development (Astin and Sax, 1998; Astin et al., 2000). A third study showed that students who performed community service were more aware of the need to become involved in the policy process, felt a greater connection to the community, and were better able to view situations from others’ perspectives (Eyler, Giles, and Braxton, 1997). It is important to note, however, that unless civic responsibility is intentionally integrated into the academic curriculum, this potential is not likely to be realized.

Changing Demographics of Our Communities and Our Colleges

Since the early 1980s, the United States has experienced an upsurge in immigration. By the end of the 1990s, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that there were 26.4 million foreign-born people residing in the United States, representing nearly 10 percent of the total population (Brittingham, 1999). In their community college classes, immigrants and international students may not only be learning English, but also the American way of life. When faculty offer service learning opportunities, especially those that emphasize civic engagement and foster civic responsibility, their students are given a chance to learn important lessons. As Battistoni (2000) suggests, “civic and political learning are not innate, but the result of conscious and ongoing work by educators.”

While recent immigrants and international students may be accustomed to helping others in their family or ethnic community, the idea of providing service to the wider community may be an unfamiliar concept to them. (However, some countries such as Nigeria, China, Ghana, Canada, France, and Germany do have well-established national service programs similar to the federal AmeriCorps programs.) Service learning provides these students with a unique opportunity to become better integrated into the civic and social life of their new communities, alongside U.S.-born students.

Just like students from other countries, U.S.-born students may not have had adequate exposure to or education about civic responsibility concepts and practices. Many of these students enter community college without a basic understanding of civic responsibility, even though some of them may have been required to do service in high school.

The increasing diversity in the classroom and the workforce provides opportunities for cross-cultural engagement and understanding. The challenge for faculty is how to make the most of this situation. By using service learning, students can explore the different meanings of civic responsibility and how to put them into practice. A quality service learning experience provides meaningful service that addresses community-defined needs and course-relevant learning to the students. The challenge for faculty is to integrate, at the core of the course, civic responsibility concepts and practices that contribute to a quality service learning experience.

About the Authors

Gail Robinson is Coordinator of Service Learning for the American Association of Community Colleges in Washington, DC. Ms. Robinson manages AACC’s Learn and Serve America national grant project, “Community Colleges Broadening Horizons through Service Learning,” and coordinates AACC’s Service Learning Clearinghouse.

She works with faculty and staff at colleges across the country to develop service learning programs, and writes and speaks about service learning issues. Ms. Robinson is the convener of service learning in Higher Education–a group comprising more than 50 Washington-area associations, organizations, and institutions–and served on the Board of Directors of the National Society for Experiential Education. In 2003-2004, Ms. Robinson will lead a new multi-college AACC project called LeadershipPlenty, funded by the Pew Partnership for Civic Change, which will focus on student and community partner leadership development. She is also one of the editors of a publication about civic responsibility for the AACC titled A Practical Guide for Integrating Civic Responsibility into the Curriculum.

Karla Gottlieb has been a consultant and trainer in the service learning curriculum for four years. She was educated at Yale and San Francisco State universities. She was the Director of the Center for Community Involvement at Miami-Dade Community College, North Campus in Miami, Florida for three years and oversaw all service learning and student volunteer activities for that campus. Since then, she has trained faculty, students, administrators, and community partners in this pedagogy at various colleges in the U.S., the Virgin Islands, and India. Additionally, she is the author of a book on the eighteenth century Jamaican Maroons entitled The Mother of Us All: A History of Queen Nanny, Leader of the Windward Jamaican Maroons. She is also one of the editors of a publication about civic responsibility for the AACC titled A Practical Guide for Integrating Civic Responsibility into the Curriculum.

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Community College National Center for Community Engagement (CCNCCE) sunsetted October 1, 2015. Mesa Community College hosts content from The Journal for Civic Commitment, published by the CCNCCE, to ensure it remains publicly available.

The important work of the CCNCCE was made possible through the financial support from many civic-minded foundations and organizations, including the Corporation for National and Community Service’s Learn and Serve America-Higher Education program, the Kettering Foundation, Campus Compact (through funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), Arizona Community Foundation, Arizona Foundation for Women, Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold Foundation, and The Teagle Foundation.