I'm writing this at the just-concluded Wingspread Conference on "Civic Engagement in Graduate Education", sponsored by The Upper Midwest Campus Compact Consortium and The Johnson Foundation. I'll be blogging more about this stimulating and important conference in the next couple of days.
In the wrap-up session, however, something surprising happened. Several people said that they felt "civic engagement" was not a term that would play well on their campuses. "Public engagement" or "community engagement" seemed more acceptable.
By coincidence, Peter Levine in his blog today asks "why there is no 'civics' discipline, and why that matters". He concludes his essay as follows:
It is intriguing to imagine a formal academic discipline of "civics." It might combine philosophical investigations of citizens' role in communities, historical research into changing forms of civic participation, empirical studies of political behavior and political development, formal study of rhetoric, and analysis of the frequent challenges that confront active citizens, such as free-rider problems in voluntary associations. However, it seems unlikely that such a discipline will develop in the near future. The alternative is to try to infuse many (or all) existing academic disciplines with civic themes and to organize educational institutions so that they draw their members' attention to the study and practice of citizenship. But that, too, is a tall order. There is a risk that civics, if diffused across the curriculum and research programs of a school or university, will never amount to much.
Given this uncertainty in the meaning of "civic", and its academic status, perhaps it is no wonder that people have doubts about using the term "civic engagement". But it seems to me too bad that such an important concept has fallen under suspicion.