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Higher Ed's Vital Role in Civic Learning

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Today's economic realities have a way of narrowing our thinking about higher education. Obviously, a college degree is an important springboard to jobs and careers. But in addition to preparing future employees, many universities also take seriously their role in preparing future citizens. That means helping students prepare not just for careers, but also to be productive, engaged participants in democracy.

This in fact is something of a golden age for civic learning. On college campuses across the country, civic engagement is alive and flourishing. Among many examples we could cite, such work takes the form of a weeklong seminar in Yellowstone National Park that studies conflicts over land and resource usage, presenting all of the different perspectives. It includes initiatives to engage undergraduate students in the use of social networks and technology for civic purposes. Civic learning also focuses on improving the way communities measure civic health or on exploring potential solutions around the national debt and deficit. It also seeks to deepen student engagement in the global community.

Given the multitude of perplexing challenges that our democracy faces today, it is vitally important -- if not imperative -- that we support colleges and universities in their work to educate future citizens. With that in mind, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, in partnership with the New York Times, started the American Democracy Project in 2003. This innovative, nonpartisan initiative engages more than 240 public colleges and universities in a wide range of activities designed to produce graduates who are capable of being active, involved citizens in their communities.

The American Democracy Project recognizes that public universities serve the public good as essential resources and partners in the communities they serve. In this context, we think of public colleges and universities as "stewards of place." This label acknowledges the invaluable role that public institutions serve locally and regionally in building strong, inclusive and livable communities with vibrant, sustainable economies -- places we not only want to work, but to live, play and raise families.

Strong stewardship of place and community hinges, of course, on strong individual leadership. By engaging students deeply and intentionally in civic learning, public colleges and universities are in essence training the next generation of community stewards. In a direct and practical way, public universities are developing citizens with the requisite knowledge and skills to make a difference in their communities -- whether local, regional, state, national or international.

In this new century, work skills and civic skills are not separate and distinct but the same. Civic engagement helps students develop skills that will be vital for both their success in the workplace, and for the success of society and our democracy on the whole -- abilities that include learning to work effectively with people who are different, organizing to get something done, listening to people with whom you disagree, collaborating to find innovative solutions, and communicating effectively.

This is indeed an exciting time for civic engagement. As exemplified in the public colleges and universities that are participating in the American Democracy Project -- and the many other institutions who also engage in such work -- our nation's institutions of higher learning are deeply engaged and intentional about educating future citizens. In that process, they are continuing to develop and refine insightful, effective educational strategies for civic learning. Moreover, college and universities are demonstrating that they can balance the work of preparing students for careers and preparing them for citizenry -- and that pursuing those parallel goals simultaneously can yield complimentary results. The future success of our democracy demands no less.