Today is election day in the U.S. On college campuses across the country we see a direct connection between the purposes of universities and active and engaged citizenship, as many campuses serve as polling places, and many semester-long student, faculty, and university initiatives to increase knowledge of and participation in our democratic process today bear fruit. But even though a day like today clearly reminds of this connection, today also reminds us that this connection is not meant to be a one-time event, every four years. Our universities do have obligations to contribute to a healthy, functioning democracy, and to prepare students to become active citizens and knowledgeable leaders and participants in our democracy. While these obligations are met in many ways across the campus, nowhere is this role fulfilled more directly and effectively than in service learning.
Secretary of Education John B. King recently noted a need for a, "broader definition of civic duty.... I ask teachers and principals and superintendents to help your students learn to be problem solvers who can grapple with challenging issues, such as how to improve their schools, homelessness, air and water pollution, or the tensions between police and communities of color."
Thus, we see the need for one's education to contribute meaningfully to the betterment of our communities and our national society codified in our national discourse, from the top down, in ways perhaps unprecedented in our history of education. While these purposes may have been imbedded in our educational system at some point long ago, we see now a renewed focus and urgency, as the challenges presented by globalization, wealth and income inequality, systemic racism and oppression, mass incarceration, and climate change are recognized as the existential threats they are.
Yet at this time of renewed focus and conviction, we are faced with a decline in the civic knowledge of of our incoming freshmen. Heather Loewecke, a senior manager at Global Learning Beyond School, notes in a recent blog on the website Education Week, that Only 24 percent of high school seniors scored proficient or higher on the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) civics exam. What's more, a college education isn't necessarily rectifying the deficiency. Loewecke also points out that "a 2016 Annenberg Public Policy poll reflected that American adults know very little about the US government, with the majority of respondents unable to answer basic questions. For example, only 26 percent of respondents could correctly identify all three branches of the government."
In a way these disparities between our goals for civic education and our results mirror, or perhaps are just another indicator of, the myriad social inequities we now face. Either way, the situation is cast into stark relief on a day like today, when what seems to be a high-functioning democracy is observed in the bustling and frenetic energy of a presidential election day on college campuses nationwide. And while the spectacle and pageantry of Election Day can fill even the most cynical among us with a certain sense of hope, we must hold fast and remember the difficult challenges that lay ahead once the confetti settles. Today is a time to participate, but also a time for we as educators to recommit ourselves to the civic education of our students, and to fully teaching the critical skills in thinking, communicating, reasoning, and problem solving such an education entails.