What's Your Civic Life? Why Does It Matter?

At Tufts University's Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, we prepare students for a lifetime of effective engagement in civic and democratic life. With the generous support and leadership of Jonathan and Lizzie Tisch, through a $15 million gift announced today, Tufts will strengthen its role as a leader in civic engagement, empower students to change their communities and their world, and remain at the frontier of research that informs our national and international policy debates.

"Higher education in our Nation is confronted today with tremendous responsibilities . . . [We] are challenged by the need to insure that higher education shall take its proper place in our national effort to strengthen democracy at home and to improve our understanding of our friends and neighbors everywhere in the world."

Those words were written in 1947 by President Harry S. Truman to mark the release of the sweeping report Higher Education for American Democracy. But at a time when many would say that thoughtful civic discourse is eroding at an alarming rate, his sentiment can easily be applied today.

Seventy years ago, President Truman looked at our nation's higher education system and saw gaping holes. He saw critical needs related to expanding access, increasing federal funding, and ensuring that students were adequately prepared to pursue careers. And importantly, he saw a role for universities in engaging young people in our shared democracy, an objective that "should come first . . . among the principal goals for higher education."

While we have seen progress in the intervening decades, it is worth asking whether colleges and universities are effectively fulfilling their responsibility to prepare this generation to meet the challenges we face. As we train physicians, journalists, lawyers and software engineers, are we also instilling in all students the skills and knowledge they need to help fix our broken democracy and rebuild our civic institutions?

In short, are we effectively empowering students with the tools for a healthy civic life?

The answer matters. Because if we are to address the great challenges of our day, we need the talent, diversity, activism and leadership of young people to develop innovative approaches and shape a better future.

We know from our research that Millennials are not the apathetic, self-involved generation they are sometimes portrayed to be. In spite of a discouraging political process and a public discourse that often takes them for granted, or ignores them altogether, young people are passionate about social issues, engaged as leaders in our communities, and eager to be a part of something greater than themselves.

When we talk about civic life, we should first define what it means. We can start with what it is not. It is not just about voting, though political engagement is an important part of civic life. And it is not the same as civic education, though it is clear that high-quality K-12 civics curricula can help prepare young people to become informed and effective citizens. And finally, when we talk about the requirements and responsibilities of citizenship, we do not refer to one's legal status in a nation state, but rather to the actions we take in our communities to bring about change.

Civic engagement necessarily encompasses a spectrum of activities. It may take the form of direct community service that is informed by the root causes of social inequity. It may include activism, dissent, and protest; political action and campaigns; community organizing; non-profit work; issue advocacy; or public service at all levels of government.

An active civic life recognizes that the task of creating, sustaining, and improving our communities and democratic institutions is not confined to the classroom or the boardroom; the town hall or the town square; the soapbox or the ballot box.

Just as each of us has a professional life and a personal one, we also have a civic life. It should be a central component of who we are as individuals. And so too must it be a vital component of education at all levels, including colleges and universities. Students should be empowered with opportunities to serve, to engage with communities, to organize, to talk about controversial issues, and to participate in our shared democracy.

Our research makes clear that the power of civic engagement is not theoretical. As one of many examples, research conducted by Tisch College's Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) looked at the resiliency of U.S. states and cities during times of economic stress. CIRCLE found that higher levels of civic engagement--as measured by volunteering, working with neighbors on community problems, attending meetings, registering to vote, and voting--had a positive influence on how well states and large metropolitan areas weathered the economic crisis of 2006-10 and how quickly unemployment began to fall with economic recovery. Subsequent research found that the prevalence and type of nonprofit organizations in a community, as well as the level of social cohesion, can further support a community's response to an economic downturn.

The point is that communities, nations and the world are stronger, more prosperous, and more just when citizens actively participate in civic and democratic life. And higher education has a responsibility to develop the next generation of active citizens. As President Truman said, it is a goal that "should come first."