09/07/2012 12:07 pm ET Updated Nov 07, 2012

Connecting the Dots: Why Civic Engagement Has to be More Than "Good Stuff"

There is a lot of recent talk about democratic engagement and civic learning in higher education. I am a teacher and a civic engagement practitioner, so most of my time is devoted to these efforts. When I think back to conversations I've had about my work, people regularly comment, "that's good stuff!" Although this is meant to be a compliment, it represents a common problem civic educators face.

Yes, it is "good stuff," but it's also much more than that. Those of us who care deeply about civic engagement need to learn to "connect the dots" and show how civic learning not only provides important services, but also develops the type of problem-solving and leadership skills necessary for success in our changing economy.

In his latest work with Michael Mandelbaum, Tom Friedman argues that the long-running emphasis on reading, writing, and arithmetic in American education is no longer sufficient. Instead, he claims that we must now focus on what he calls the 3 Cs -- creativity, communication, and collaboration. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills has included critical thinking and problem solving to this list. Both Friedman and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills are speaking directly to the profound gap between what schools teach students and what is required of them to be successful in their communities and workplace. Friedman goes as far to say that America's best days will be behind her unless we refocus on these skills and dispositions that made the United States an economic and cultural success.

A critical aspect of American revitalization is the role higher education will play in innovation and change. Across the country, many universities are investing in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education and high profile research, but fewer institutions are explicitly connecting the dots between STEM and the 4 Cs mentioned above. Civic learning focuses on democratic engagement and the ways that people work together across difference to achieve common goals. Civic learning cuts across academic disciplines and is most effective when students are engaged not only in classrooms, but also in their communities. Students active in civic learning will see themselves as co-creators of their communities and environments, not simply consumers of them.

I recently spent a few days doing informal research on people's perception of civic engagement. I talked to several people on my campus and in my community about what I do in higher education. Everyone understood that I taught classes, but when I shared about my work with civic engagement, most got glassy-eyed and in the end agreed that civic education was "good stuff" that we should all be doing, but didn't really see a connection between it and other aspects of a college education. Most of us have some sense that we should help people, cast our vote, and generally contribute to society, but we are much less clear on exactly how civic learning can and should be an essential aspect of education.

What Employers Want

In addition to specialized knowledge and expertise, research shows that employers want institutions of higher education to place more emphasis on civic knowledge, cultural diversity, complex problem solving, ethical decision-making, critical thinking and application in "real-world" settings. Why is this? As one business owner told me recently, "new graduates may know a lot about their major, but they don't know how to do anything." Civic skills focus on building relationships, gathering information from diverse sources, analyzing that information, synthesizing it, and communicating in meaningful ways. In other words, civic learning teaches students how to translate academic knowledge in a world where values matter. One of the most eye-opening experiences for my students is when they discover -- through community-based, group projects -- their careers will inevitably involve working with other humans who will likely not agree with them when they are against the wall to make major decisions. Civic learning is about teaching students how to move forward when problems are complicated and opinions are divided. Civic engagement educators care about this and so do those that employ our graduates.

What America Needs

A study from the Harvard Graduate School of Education shows a strong convergence between the skills most needed for work in the global knowledge economy and those most needed to keep our democracy safe and vibrant. We should not forget that public education is both about preparing students to be successful in their careers and as citizens of an increasingly diverse nation. Research and practical experience tell us that the American people are increasingly fragmented along socio-economic and ideological lines. Both high school and college graduates are remarkably deficient in the civic knowledge (how government works, laws are passed, etc.) and skills (how to work across differences for a common goal) required for a thriving democracy. Students engaged in civic learning are challenged to think about what is good for them and their families, as well as what they contribute to the greater good of society. This represents the very best of political engagement, cutting across partisan ideology to work for strong families, healthy communities, and a resilient nation.

We need to bring civic learning to the center along with STEM and other efforts directed toward global economic success. The burden is on those of us that care deeply about civic education to connect the dots between the "good stuff" and the knowledge and skills essential for a comprehensive education, economic prosperity, and the American way of life.