02/27/2014 11:32 am ET Updated Apr 29, 2014

Civic Engagement and Higher Education: It Is Not Only About Tutoring

As scholars, teachers and administrators, we think a lot about the resurgence of civic engagement in American higher education. We believe deeply in it, and are convinced that bringing the resources of our institutions to the world's wicked problems is a core responsibility -- yet we worry about this trend too. We are concerned with what it is exactly that we are doing, especially when it comes to student community service.

To use a metaphor, does the current nature of civic engagement, as practiced by higher education, teach our students that the solution to K-12 educational problems in the United States comes from tutoring children? Don't get us wrong -- tutoring has its place, but this is not a solution to society's educational equity issues.

To extend the metaphor, do our students know while they are tutoring that there are political and policy questions that weigh heavily on the child in front of them? For the former, do they know who serves on the school board and what their position is on charter schools? For the latter, do they know that, because most funding for public K-12 schools comes from local governments whose coffers are filled by property taxes, educational opportunities are institutionally stacked against low-income children?

To be sure, this generation of students is civically engaged (here we are referring largely to volunteerism), but they are also politically disengaged (here we are referring largely to efforts aimed at influencing policy or electoral politics). With the exception of 2004 and 2008, 18 to 24-year-old voter turnout has been on the decline, and youth consistently vote at lower rates than those older than them. Young adults are also less likely to engage in advocacy efforts or write their congressional leaders. We would be less concerned about this if we had evidence that the civic leads to the political, but we are hard pressed to find rigorous research to alleviate our concerns.

A historic lack of confidence in public institutions notwithstanding, the predominant civic practices within higher education may contribute to a pipeline of disengagement. When students on our campuses tutor K-12 students, and they do so void of knowledge on the political and policy dimensions of the problem their efforts aim to address, they are engaging in a charitable response to a complicated issue. If we do not teach them, then we are conveying that a charitable response is sufficient.

Without knowledge and skills for political engagement, we should not be surprised by a lack of political action. Research demonstrates that political engagement is predicted by having politically-oriented parental role models, engaging in political, issue-based discussion with peers and others, and receiving civic education. As such, higher education should not shirk its responsibility to teach the habits of democratic engagement. One of the best predictors of youth voter turnout is whether they are registered to vote, but how many of our campuses facilitate this simple democratic rite of passage?

We suspect that these observations resonate for many of you who spend time on college campuses. When was the last time you saw a significant protest by your students on an issue of national or international concern? We make this observation in an historical context where the U.S. has been involved in two costly, deadly and unpopular wars. At the same time, we suspect that you can very easily recall learning about efforts by your students to send relief supplies to areas devastated by natural disasters or in fact, tutor. While these types of charitable actions should be encouraged, we must also do more to educate about the politics and policy that surround those actions. For example, disaster relief efforts have a robust grounding in international development and foreign diplomacy. When such international events occur, faculty can place that contemporary issue in historical context. The question of: "What can you do?" can be posed and unpacked. For nearly every civic project that our students passionately embrace, there is a concomitant political or policy dimension that our institutions are deeply qualified to highlight.

When presented with a vexing issue such human trafficking or homelessness, students often ask: "But what can I do?" To make political action a response, our objective should be to demystify politics and the policy process. Given the disinvestment in K-12 civics education (and without Schoolhouse Rock) students arrive on our campuses unable to explain how a bill becomes law. The policy process and citizens' roles in it should be made clear.

Finally, we can organize our students to stop the cycle of political disengagement now. The nationally implemented Marshall Brennan project is an example, where law students teach constitutional law in the most disadvantaged schools in the United States. As we know, you really learn a subject when you teach it. As our students grow and develop as political actors, they inspire and educate the next generation of politically engaged youth.

Political action is mercurial. Its forms and activities change as society changes. Product boycotts, online campaigns and other methods are on the rise. Educated young adults are certainly at the forefront of these trends. Our concern, however, is with the basic habits of democracy, the constitutional and electoral framework upon which our country is founded and still operates. Let's teach them how to influence the political and policy process -- not just tutor. Yes, we should tell our students, share your math expertise in the local schools near your campus, but also implore them to learn about why there are too many students in the class and the teacher needs to live with his parents because he does not make enough money to live on his own. Let's connect the civic to the political and move the civic engagement movement to embrace a broader democratic engagement.