The Civic Mission of Higher Education

How Universities Can Energize Civic Involvement

By Joy Pedersen

gevirtz%20banner.jpg “A morally and civically responsible individual recognizes himself or herself as a member of a larger social fabric and therefore considers social problems to be at least partly his or her own; such an individual is willing to see the moral and civic dimensions of issues, to make and justify informed moral and civic judgments, and to take action when appropriate.” —Thomas Ehrlich, Civic Responsibility and Higher Education

The 2006 elections are drawing to an end, and as Californians we have little time left to educate ourselves on the issues. According to a study published by the Public Policy Institute of California in 2004, voter turnout in California is lower than in the rest of the United States. With a large minority population, California needs to invest in public education so that more Californians have the skills needed to move up the economic ladder and participate in the civic and political life of the state.

Early American universities were established with a civic mission: to prepare students to be morally and civically responsible citizens in a democratic society. According to Thomas Jefferson, the purpose of higher education is to “form statesmen, legislators, and judges, on whom public prosperity and individual happiness are so much to depend.” Many early institutions, such as University of Virginia that Jeferson founded in 1825, were part of the building of our new nation and took seriously their role in shaping a democratic society.


During the 20th century, large universities shifted their focus away from their civic mission towards a research agenda. Driven by the threat of foreign power during the Cold War, federal funds were allocated for science research, national security, and technological innovation. Federal funding during this era allowed universities to provide vocational and professional instruction at the cost of liberal education. As a result, faculty are often rewarded for their research in narrowly defined specializations within their academic departments and professional societies.

Meanwhile, today’s youth may be the most politically disengaged in American history. Since the 1940s, there has been a documented decline in political affiliations and voluntary association memberships in each generation. According to the National Commission on Civic Renewal, social scientists have reported a decline in voting in elections, attendance at community meetings, and involvement in volunteer activities. This decline has accelerated since 1985.


In a study examining 12 civic activities, participation declined by an average of 10% between 1973-1974 and 1983-1984, and by 24% between 1983-1984 and 1993-1994. Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, claims the share of Americans totally uninvolved in any of the 12 civic activities rose by nearly one-third over those 10 years.

What can be done to address the civic mission of higher education? Of the many strategies, community-based research and service learning are two prominent trends. Community-based research blends the research agenda and the civic mission of the university by involving students in research projects that address social issues. An increased number of faculty are partnering with non-profit community agencies to produce research that benefits communities, students, and the university.

Another approach is service learning. Service learning occurs when faculty include a community service component in their course curriculum. Students experience enhanced learning outcomes because their in-class learning is reinforced through experiential learning and reflection.

There are many other strategies for civic renewal that merit attention, but most importantly, institutions of higher education need to commit to making their civic mission a priority. Unless American higher education reconsiders its responsibility and role, we will have to find other means of instilling civic values in our future leaders.

Joy Pedersen is a doctoral candidate in the Educational Leadership and Organization Emphasis of the Department of Education at UC Santa Barbara’s Gevirtz School.

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