Posted on February 3, 2013
I spent Friday in DC at an AAC&U sponsored meeting on civic learning.
While I am incredibly proud of what SNHU does in terms of civic engagement, our Carnegie Community Engagement classification, and our Center for Service and Community Involvement, I left the meeting reflecting on civic engagement and the differences between charity and learning. I was particularly inspired by the presentation of Michelle Fine, a social psychologist at the City University of New York. She outlined a series of a questions we might ask of our civic engagement programs:
1. What “gaze” or vantage point do we want students to take so they go from a stance of “What’s wrong or sad about these people?” to seeing the structural and power relationships that shape the circumstances in which people find themselves? Do we give them the tools of analysis to really understand what they are seeing and experiencing?
2. How do we help students understand privilege and how resources are distributed or not distributed around a problem?
3. How do we create “rich sites of difference” in which students engage with those who are different from them and do it in a way that fundamentally respects what those being “helped” bring to the equation?
4. How do we teach the interdependence that informs all place, the “circuitry” that actually means things can move in both directions (not just from the top to the bottom)?
5. Do we use “action” as a form of learning, one that can convey both a sense of powerlessness (in the inability to make change) and empowerment (to take a stand)?
6. How do we combat the loss of “civic space”? The way the “commons” in an online spaces are commoditized (Facebook, LinkedIn….). The way privatization has taken over so many aspects of American life.
7. How do we help students udnerstand the tension between independence or being free and community or solidarity — the way there is no a yearning/need for both?
8. Do we ask students to decide what they will “stand for”? Where will they make their investments (of time? energy? brain power?…)?
9. How will they help create our shared or public “commons” and where do they define the “state” and role of government (a fierce ideological debate that now paralyzes our government)?
10. How do we as academics and institutions move from “neutrality” (never actually getting to taking a stand) to “strong objectivity” (taking a stand on solid grounds)?
She then laid out a larger challenge: how do we help our students once again imagine the civic. That is, what a great public school might look like? What might elevate all of us together?
I was particularly taken by this question and wrestling with it in DC. Why DC? Because it is so much our shared civic space. We went to a Smithsonian Museum and I walked to the desk to ask where we should buy our tickets and the kindly woman there reminded me that there is no charge. These are the people’s museums. This is a city of monuments and grand government buildings and public spaces like the Mall, where people can play touch football or picnic or gather to demand their rights.
I have heard people in NH brag about how modest are our courthouses. I’ve visited state offices that are shabby and ill maintained. Name a great building built by the state of New Hampshire (and liquor stores don’t count). We live in an age of austerity and a search for perpetual cuts and there’s nothing to brag about in it. It’s a small hearted and small minded way for our country to be, especially when you think about what we were once capable of as a country. We built highway systems, invented skyscrapers, sent a man to the moon, and created the Internet. Now we can’t keep our bridges from rusting into oblivion.
I’d like our old America back. The one that dreamed big, built big, and created a sense of shared pride and achievement. What a gift for our students if we could at least help them envision what America’s public commons might once again be.