On campus, the good side of politics

Given the rancorous tone of current public debate and the gridlock in government, college students are understandably skeptical about politics and public life. Our polarized legislators seem unable to discuss issues with civility, and policy only seems to be made when one party has a supermajority and compromise is unnecessary.

This pessimistic view may be the received wisdom, but we see reasons for hope on many college campuses. At the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, students are helping lead the way to a new kind of politics that bridges difference and strengthens communities.

One team of Jewish and Muslim students worked together with administrators to bring more kosher and halal options to campus eateries. Other teams are working with campus partners to redesign spaces, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, encourage healthy lifestyle choices and boost campus spirit. The Student Government Association long ago leapt beyond the "let's pretend" model of student government to become a catalyst for students' creativity and engagement and a national model for sparking innovation. Instead of treating students as constituents to be served and then solicited at election time, UMBC's student government recognizes them as people with differing views and backgrounds whose talents and passions can be brought together for the common good.

On a campus with UMBC's diversity, disagreements are inevitable. The work of building partnerships and allocating scarce resources can be messy and complicated. This is where "politics" comes in: not as a dirty word for the power-seeking tactics of political elites, but as a set of skills everyone can use to find common ground and get things done. The kind of generative politics practiced at UMBC, supported by a culture that celebrates innovation and resourcefulness, brings faculty, staff, students, alumni and community partners together to envision alternative futures and solve problems.

Indeed, a growing chorus of voices is calling for greater civic engagement in higher education to help more students build these skills. The influential report, "A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy's Future," issued earlier this year by the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, urges institutions to look beyond conventional civic engagement efforts focused on voting and voluntary community service. Although both are important, the authors say, "even together they are insufficient to offset the civic erosion we are experiencing." Instead, schools should help students learn complex civic skills through experience, using strategies such as deliberative dialogues, service-learning and collective problem-solving.

Another new report, "Advancing Civic Learning and Engagement in Democracy: A Roadmap and Call to Action," published by the U.S. Department of Education, argues that the nation's return on its investment of hundreds of billions of dollars in students' education must be measured not just by students' productive employment but also their capacity to work together to "solve collective problems creatively and collaboratively." The report calls on schools to treat civic education and engagement as "essential parts of the core academic mission" rather than relegating them to the sidelines, and to pursue forms of engagement that are "more ambitious and participatory than in the past."

Two promising new projects are about to carry these ideas forward in exciting ways. At UMBC, we recently launched BreakingGround, a campus-wide initiative to embed opportunities for civic learning and collaborative problem-solving even more broadly and deeply in our curriculum and co-curricular activities. BreakingGround features a new website (breakingground.umbc.edu) where we can share our stories, discuss issues and find new connections.

In addition, the American Commonwealth Partnership — a coalition of colleges and universities that emphasizes civic skills like those developed at UMBC — and the National Issues Forum Institute are organizing deliberative dialogues at several hundred campus and community locations throughout the country to discuss the public purpose of higher education. This campaign — "Shaping our Future: How Should Higher Education Help Us Create the Society We Want?" — will bring people together to talk about issues in ways that transcend bickering and promote mutual learning, understanding and a sense of common purpose.

For the two of us, steeped in UMBC's culture of creativity and engagement, the importance of these efforts could not be clearer. As a student leader and an administrator supporting students' co-curricular learning and development, we see students' skepticism about public life greatly diminish when they engage in dialogue, deliberation and action to solve problems. Even in a cynical age, we have learned enough from these processes to be filled with hope for the future of our democracy.

Kaylesh Ramu (kramu1@umbc.edu) is president of the UMBC Student Government Association. David Hoffman (dhoffman@umbc.edu) is assistant director of student life for civic agency at UMBC.

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