WASHINGTON — From students to college presidents to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, people from all corners of the education community flocked to the White House Tuesday to participate in panel discussions on the need for civics in American higher education.
The event coincided with the release of a report outlining the vital role civic teaching should take in improving the overall education of students.
The study, unveiled by The National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement and released by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, describes shortcomings in civic knowledge and urges the Department of Education to take measures to “ignite a widespread civic renewal in America. When deep learning about complex questions with public consequences is coupled with college students’ energies and commitments, democratic culture is invigorated.”
Brian Murphy, president of De Anza College, a community college in California, said his students’ desire for education goes beyond learning enough to become employed.
“They want, they need, and they organize for, in short, an education in democratic practice…” Murphy said. “They want to be principled, informed and literate citizens.”
Azar Nafisi, a professor at Johns Hopkins University who became a U.S. citizen in 2008, asserted that without a passion for obtaining civic education, students would be unable to understand people in other areas of the world who lack the freedom to seek such education.
“How could a young population, without having any knowledge of their own history…their own culture…feel any form of empathy for a woman in Afghanistan who is killed because she wants to go to school?” Nafisi said. “No new information or technology will come if we do not encourage our children to have that passion, that curiosity, that thirst for knowledge.”
Providing a different perspective, Bianca Brown, a student from Western Kentucky University, spoke not of empathy beyond U.S borders, but of fixing “the empowerment gap” in America. Brown said it is important for citizens “to share the knowledge that you have and empower the unempowered.”
“It’s not just saying ‘I’m an American,’” Brown said. “It’s the act of doing things.”
In the final speech of the event, Duncan spoke of the partnership he believes must be created between the government and educators to successfully revamp civic education.
“Please challenge us, we want to be a good partner,” Duncan said. “If you see us missing a beat, if you see something we’re not doing… we want to be good partners.”
Duncan concluded his brief remarks by challenging everyone in attendance to improve civic education.
“Right now, as a country, what would we give ourselves? C-? D+? D-?” Duncan said. “We have to think radically different, we have to do it together. Hopefully today is the start of a conversation.”