Civic Engagement and Civil Discourse: If Not Now, Then When?

ASCCC Secretary
West Valley College

Since the November 2016 presidential election, significant discussion has taken place regarding the need for civic discourse and civil engagement across the United States, and while some faculty have been quick to pick up on the issue, others have been more reticent, in part because they may not believe that their disciplines lend themselves to this issue. One might easily see how political science courses lend themselves to concerns about civic engagement, but connections to math curriculum, for example, may be less obvious. Faculty members in many disciplines may struggle to bring in issues such as civic engagement while ensuring that their course content is fully covered. The Academic Senate for California Community Colleges has been involved in these discussions for a number of years and in recent months has increased its efforts to ensure that these elements make their way into any classroom in which the instructor wants to impart such information.

Presentations at the 2016 ASCCC Instructional Design and Innovation Institute (IDII), the 2016 Community College League of California conference, the Spring 2017 ASCCC Plenary Session, and the 2017 ASCCC Curriculum Institute demonstrate thatinterest in discussions of civic education and civil discourse does exist within our community colleges. However, less clarity has been established regarding who should be leading the conversations and where and how these efforts are to be implemented.  In order to ensure that such efforts continue, the ASCCC has been working with a committee comprised of faculty, administrators, and members of the California Community Colleges Foundation to promote civic engagement and civic discourse throughout the 114 colleges in the California Community College system.

A report by the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement titled “The Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future” has underpinned much of the collective and individual work on this topic.  The report lays out three principal strategies that have been invaluable to the committee:  First, it expands the traditional definition of civic learning to include a more “contemporary, comprehensive framework for civic learning—embracing US and global interdependence—that includes historic and modern understandings of democratic values, capacities to engage diverse perspectives and people, and commitment to collective civic problem solving”[1], becoming more appropriate to a 21st century, interconnected world while also allowing other disciplines to more organically infuse civic learning into their curricula. Secondly, it lays out what characterizes a civic-minded institution: creating institutional practices and policies designed to produce a civic-minded ethos, environment, and expectation for all students, faculty, and administrators. Thirdly, the report posits that students need to have multiple and developmentally designed opportunities to cultivate the capabilities and skills necessary to participate in and contribute to a diverse democracy within a global network of interdependencies.  The report concludes that this kind of action goes beyond the traditional venues of service learning and far beyond the traditional disciplines in which one would expect to find civic engagement; rather, all faculty have a responsibility to engage in these elements within their learning environments, whether the classroom, laboratory, counseling session, library research, the athletic field, or any of the myriad of other places that learning takes place on a college campus.

This principle is particularly essential for the community colleges in California. For many of our students, community college may be the only higher learning institution they will attend.  As a result, civic learning must play a critical role in their educational arc—not as a discipline, necessarily, but as a framework for understanding, learning, and acting in the world. Such a framework will equip students with the skills and knowledge base to engage with, shape, and revitalize the tenets of a democratic society.

The most recent presidential election made clear that if we do not help students learn how to dialog through difficult discussions at fault lines of difference, they may receive no help at all. If our classrooms do not share other histories, perspectives, and opinions, our students may have nowhere to hear worldviews different from their own. If civic engagement and civil discourse do not happen now, they may not happen at all.

In order to continue this dialogue, the ASCCC has partnered with the Foundation for California Community Colleges and several other groups to present the first annual Civic Engagement Summit, to be held 5-6 October 2017 at College of the Canyons.  The Civic Engagement Summit is the work of a small but rapidly expanding group of faculty and administrators committed to the idea of civic engagement in classrooms and campuses across the state.  The committee at the core of this effort reached out to a number of pioneers and advocates around the issues of civic engagement and civil discourse, including Dr. Brian Murphy, president of DeAnza College and one of the leaders of the Democracy Project, to be involved in the summit.  The response has been extremely positive, and while the final program has not been finalized as of this writing, the summit promises to be a powerful meeting of faculty, administrators, staff, and students who believe that civic engagement must be a part of every curricula, regardless of discipline.   The committee hopes that this event will be the first of many activities designed to promote civic engagement across the curriculum at the California Community Colleges.

[1] The National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement. 2012. A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities. Available at:…