America’s current generation of college students has earned a reputation for selfless service and volunteerism. So, observers have asked, why are those same students so reluctant to engage in political causes or democratic action? Why, for example, did only 45 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds vote in 2012, according to a Tufts University study?
Elmhurst College is playing a leadership role in a new national effort to address such questions by promoting civic learning and democratic engagement on college campuses. Elmhurst was chosen as one of eight colleges and universities nationwide that will provide expertise and guidance to other institutions to help them create more civic-minded campuses, as part of the Lead Initiative of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. The Lead Initiative supports a network of 73 colleges and universities committed to helping students “develop as productive and engaged citizens,” according to NASPA.
“I’m very proud of the College for having developed programs that are recognized by others and that receive national attention,” said Elmhurst President S. Alan Ray.
“This says that we’re doing significant work here and that we can help others,” said Eileen Sullivan, Elmhurst’s dean of students. “[Developing students as citizens] is what we do as an institution. It’s central to our mission.”
Sullivan and Laura Wilmarth Tyna, Elmhurst’s director of leadership, service and engagement, recently co-authored an article for the journal Diversity & Democracy that outlines the need for civics education and Elmhurst’s response to that need. The authors said that Elmhurst’s efforts in civic education were galvanized by the 2012 report of the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, which called on colleges to make civic engagement “an undisputed educational priority.”
Indeed, many have noted a growing gap in understanding of civics principles among young people. The problem begins, some say, with a reduced emphasis on civics in primary- and secondary-school curricula. Sullivan and Wilmarth Tyna noted that during a speaking engagement at Elmhurst, former associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States Sandra Day O’Connor expressed concern about the lack of civic knowledge among American students. Most young people can name at least one American Idol judge, O’Connor said, but no Supreme Court justices.
Beginning in 2012, Elmhurst’s Division of Student Affairs underwent an audit of the College’s curricular and cocurricular programs, looking for ways to better prepare students for active citizenship. The audit, which examined 22 such programs, noted the College’s success in supporting strong student involvement in local communities and its role in encouraging students to examine and act on their personal values. However, it also noted that the College could do a better job of building students’ knowledge of democratic processes.
Wilmarth Tyna said that the audit confirmed that at Elmhurst, as on many other campuses, students are more inclined to commit to personal acts of service than they are to get involved with broader political causes or movements.
“It’s an ongoing challenge. Even as students have become more service-oriented, student organizations focused on democracy and politics have almost disappeared,” she said. “We want them to know that there are ways for them to engage as citizens.”
Wilmarth Tyna said that a newly formed committee of faculty, students and staff will use the findings of the audit to create a Civic Action Plan, to be released by the spring of 2014. The plan will include proposals that Wilmarth Tyna said “will make our campus more civic-minded.”
At the same time, as a Lead Consulting Institution in NASPA’s Lead Initiative, the College’s student affairs office will be advising other institutions on ways to develop their own civic-education efforts.
“Working with other institutions will help us to grow even more,” Wilmarth Tyna said. “We’ll be sharing our experience and expertise with them, but we’ll be learning from them as well.”
Sullivan said the aim of the College’s efforts is to create more opportunities for student involvement. “Students should know that they can work actively on the issues they care about,” she said.