I recently worked with two colleagues to produce an award nomination for our university suggesting why we should receive honors for our efforts to stimulate student civic engagement, a fundamental element of my university’s Land Grant mission. We outlined the numbers of students involved in service learning, in community projects, in service-oriented study abroad opportunities and the like. We highlighted numbers and hours volunteered. It was impressive. But powerful as such measures may be, they do not suggest why students should be encouraged to engage with communities or service projects, or why their efforts matter beyond the provision of whatever activity they offer in the initiatives with which they are involved. The measures do not suggest what service experiences provide that is valuable.
Nonetheless, such a justification is surely possible. Student engagement provides at least three forms of character-building opportunity that redound to an increased likelihood of deliberative citizenship. These include developing empathetic imagination, improving capacity for tolerance of ambiguity and cultivating capacity to accept differences. As it happens, democratic citizens must possess these characteristics, which must be widely shared if they are to prove enduring and to serve freedom effectively. Citizens, at least in a heterogeneous society, must be able to imagine the other and to place themselves in their shoes so as to consider their interests appropriately and justly. Similarly, to be good citizens in such societies, individuals must be able to deal with difference and to accord standing to others unlike themselves on the basis of otherwise abstract criteria or premises. Finally, to accept responsibility for a deliberative role in complex political choice-making amidst difference, as democratic decision-making demands, implies citizens must have a capacity to tolerate ambiguity and to suspend judgment long enough to gather alternate interpretations of events or concerns so as to consider many before taking the measure of any.
Notably, these are all ethical claims with self-evident moral implications. Engagement allows students to address contexts that help them come to understand each of these concerns more sharply than they might otherwise. Difference will be palpable if, for example, a student from a comfortable middle class family finds herself reading to a child from a broken home struggling with poverty. Empathy is required as one serves in order to imagine what it is like to be of a different race or ethnicity and to cope with the social bias and discrimination that can arise solely from those differences. Likewise, wrestling with how a society dedicated strongly to equality tolerates so high a measure of inequality may sensitize serving students to moral ambiguity in a way that reading about it alone may not.
Inescapably, engaged experience contributes both to the continuing formation and re-creation of the characters of students who participate in such opportunities. Taken together such possibilities provide a more profound sort of learning in that they touch not only students’ minds, but also leave them more deeply aware of life’s enduring challenges, paradoxes and larger questions. In this sense, these occasions for service shape not only students’ intellectual lives, but their characters as well. These engaged experiences touch hearts and souls and not just minds, providing educational possibilities one might label soulcraft, to borrow a term first used by George Will in another context.
Civic engagement has been a part of many Land Grant institutions’ missions almost since their establishment. But for decades, that community outreach meant sharing technical assistance and later, household support, with farm and rural families. The local extension agent from the state Land Grant university was the rural resident’s “friend.” Land Grant institutions still share that tradition, but the civic engagement role now incorporates many additional elements beyond extension, including involving students in projects in communities. For example, engagement now may imply systematic efforts at technology transfer to create conditions for economic development, may entail student involvement in community in a wide variety of service learning or assistance projects, may involve initiatives to catalyze community development or change or may simply be comprised of studio or seminar assignments that require students to engage with community members in disparate ways. All of these provide students opportunities for character building and discovery while enhancing and fulfilling the Land Grant university’s engagement mission.
By itself engagement ordains nothing, but it provides a rich palette of opportunities for just such to occur. Aristotle long ago argued that citizens, rightly educated, would simply “know” when what they had done was “right.” Democracies require citizens with such sensibilities to other-regarding claims. Land Grant service opportunities can provide occasions for the development of just such habits of mind and heart. In a word, engagement can provide a forum for soulcraft that can yield broad social benefits. In particular, at its best, it can help to produce the intellectual modesty and sensitive humanity necessary for deliberative democratic citizenship. Small wonder Land Grant institutions celebrate that legacy and possibility.