February 6th, 2012
07:30 AM ET

My View: Preventing a “citizen-less” nation through higher education

Courtesy Noliwe Rooks by Noliwe Rooks, Special to CNN

Editor’s Note: Noliwe Rooks is the associate director of the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University and the founding coordinator of the center’s urban education reform initiative. She is a member of the Op Ed Project. You can follow her on Twitter @nrookie .

Today, fewer Americans than ever believe one requirement of citizenship is to right the wrongs in our nation. So says a recent report by the American Association of American Colleges and Universities released recently at the White House. The report, called “A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future,”  warns that the United States is nearing the point of becoming a “citizen-less” nation where the majority sit on the sidelines pointing out, complaining about and urging others to act.

So what do we do in the face of this dire scenario? The report recommends that colleges and universities begin to make civic engagement central to the college experience. The preparation for democracy, they argue, is as important to our nation’s future as is learning to write, count and prepare for a career.

As a professor at Princeton University with a focus on education and social and civic entrepreneurship, I couldn’t agree more. I see the power of empowering the civic imaginations of students every day, equipping them with real world skills to think critically about their communities, innovate and advocate on behalf of themselves and others, and stay resilient in the long slog for societal change.

If civic engagement is to become a central focus for the Obama administration and a key feature of higher education, we need a version of it that moves beyond merely voting, volunteering or tutoring. We need to provide opportunities for students and faculty to use their skills as writers, thinkers and researchers to become social entrepreneurs who work to actually solve social issues, not just soften their impact. The version of civics that we teach now is a Band-aid to our social and political ills.  A new vision could encourage students to find a cure, getting at the root causes of inequality and injustice and transforming our nation.

This is not to suggest that we need fewer volunteers or tutors. Giving back in those ways can be a sincere expression of caring, which is never a bad thing. But if we reimagine civic engagement, we can open up pathways for addressing a host of civic failures that we face, including unemployment. When students are trained to be social entrepreneurs who use their education to solve social justice issues, they not only increase their employment prospects, but they also raise the value of a college education and create better lives for those who are not fortunate enough to receive a university degree.

By any definition, this would be a win-win proposition, especially at a time when the value of a college education is increasingly in question. According to statistics cited in The New York Times, only 45.4% of humanities graduates, for example, are gainfully employed in jobs that require a college degree. Another 29.4% are working in jobs where no college degree is even necessary. The rest are unemployed. Civic engagement skills are also job skills. In other words, what’s good for our nation’s civic health is good for individual citizens’ economic health.

This new vision of civic engagement must be cross-disciplinary for a cross-disciplinary world. Departments across campuses can collaborate to form research teams that function in ways similar to how research labs in the sciences are organized. Each “lab,” comprised of students specializing in a range of issues areas, can be led by an interdisciplinary faculty team. Their collective goal can be to work with businesses, religious organizations, nonprofit organizations and educational groups in their local communities to propose and implement innovative solutions to ongoing problems.

We’ve seen it work here at Princeton. In one of our African-American studies courses on social entrepreneurship, students presented their research and recommendations for an urban employment project to government officials in a nearby urban area. Their vision became the basis for a successfully funded federal grant. Another group in a course on education reform researched ways to help struggling urban public schools. They presented their findings to a regional school superintendent and implemented a research study, based on best practices and aimed at addressing the social, emotional and academic health in one particular school. The students were thrilled to see their academic pursuits have real world impact, and equipped with marketable skills and an impressive line for their young resumes in the process.

As the American Association of American Colleges and Universities report makes clear, the reframing of civic engagement is critical to the health of our nation and the role of colleges and universities in our society. In one fell swoop, we can cut down on widespread underemployment and unemployment among recent college graduates, promote creative and sustained thinking about solving intractable problems like racial, social and economic inequality, and strengthen the dwindling base of engaged citizens. So what are we waiting for?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Noliwe Rooks.


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Filed under: After High School • College • Issues • Voices
soundoff (17 Responses)
  1. 123445

    Another idea to " cut down on widespread underemployment and unemployment among recent college graduates" – stop providing federal aid for people who study useless things. If you want a degree in Eskimo studies, go for it, but the tax payer should only assist with marketable degrees in fields that meet a need in the economy. (And no – you don't get to just create a need by setting up some government program or rule. It has to be a need for an OUTPUT)

    February 16, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
  2. vintage 274

    I agree wholeheartedly with this article, but as a former high school educator, I believe this civic knowledge needs to be advanced in elementary and high school. Our children need to learn from an early age how to effectivey work as citizens. Such education has fallen by the wayside, resulting in an undereducated political population.

    February 9, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  3. Obama ratings

    The global warming state policies have got required a number of political controversy, insurance plan models, along with legislation relating to the technology of global warming as well as the response to ...spilleautomater online

    February 8, 2012 at 7:22 pm |
  4. JD

    Excellent argument for how colleges and universities continue to be active in training citizens for the democracy of the future. If we're not happy with the one we have now, what better way to create social change than to train future social leaders?

    February 8, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
  5. Richp

    I can see your point but really what we need as a nation now to compete in the world are hard degrees in sciences, engineering, math not soft degrees. How many lawyers do we need, they contribute nothing but to generate their own business by becoming politicians and writing new laws that accomplish nothing but generate litigation and profits. That a doctor makes less then an ambulance chaser is a disgrace. That a teacher makes less, a lot less, than just about any elected office in this country is also a disgrace. That we have politicians that make a career of elections and vote their own pay raises and retirements is a crime beyond belief and that people stand for it just amazes me.

    February 8, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
    • Sergei y.

      We need a higher education as a nation if this is achieved we could send doctors to our allies more humanitarian aid to help the world. Plus maybe this will show the capitalist pigs their place.

      February 8, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
  6. Mat

    It's a disposable society. It was designed to operate on labor exploitation, every time one group gets rights, another has to be brought in to take its place under the bus. When you run out of people to throw under the bus, everyone is going to have to get out and walk. People seem to be ignoring this reality tapping on history's shoulder. The U.S. is an empire in decline, China and India are already moving ahead. Once the USD is no longer the global reserve currency, this whole house of cards comes crashing down. I've already resigned myself to retiring overseas, I'm hoping to be able to expatriate sooner just so i don't get sucked into the undertow if this ship sinks faster than it already appears to be sinking.

    February 8, 2012 at 11:25 am |

    This article only got 7 posts. What a shame. I will share this article with my students. Question for the author? What are you going to do to help Hispanics in Arizona, Alabama, and the other red states currently trying to kick Hispanic children out of the schools and who are effectively eliminating Mexican-American Studies in the Tucson school district?

    February 8, 2012 at 10:38 am |
  8. Bill Landers

    I would like to say, its nice to see someone who has enough courage to offer a solution or a series of solutions to our country's problem's. When we see all this money being spent on electing this person or that person for any office, can anyone tell me it makes sense ? When that person gets elected how much of his or her time is spent finding solutions to our problems ? Most of the people who have the big money want to keep things just the way they are. So the rest of us have a uphill battle to turn things around, but I do agree as a citizen that if we do not come in from the sidelines, we will lose the battle in a landslide and we will have no one to blame but ourselves !

    February 7, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
    • MiGrant

      Very succinctly put, Mr. Landers! 100% agreed!
      So many of the proposed "solutions" that are offered by current politicians are partisan-based,
      instead of reason-based. They're not interested in solutions, they're interested in looking like they're providing solutions and sucking up to their wealthier supporters...
      Still searching for that honest man of reason...

      February 8, 2012 at 7:38 am |
      • MiGrant

        P.S. To all Republican and Democrat "leaders": You are so many wastes of space! For God's sake step down and let those of us who really love and care about this country(as opposed to this or that political party) start picking up the mess you've made of our country!

        February 8, 2012 at 7:44 am |
  9. hw

    This article can be summed up quite simply, every person needs to become a "doer" instead of sitting around being a "talker." Talk without action is merely a waste of energy as it does nothing to solve issues. Educating everyone to a level where they are empowered to analyze events and implement logical solutions to the challenges we are facing should be our goal as citizens.

    February 7, 2012 at 5:57 pm |