Last week, David Scobey, executive dean of the New School for Public Engagement in New York, discussed the importance of long-term civic engagement. The talk forced us to question whether or not students are benefiting from civic engagement and experiential learning opportunities at Duke.
Duke prides itself on promoting “knowledge in the service of society.” Duke’s primary mission is to educate its students—to help them garner knowledge that will allow them to benefit both themselves and society. Duke considers it to be an important, albeit secondary, mission to encourage students to contribute to society in more immediate ways.
Engaging with a community through civic engagement programs, like DukeEngage and others, offers two broad lessons.
First, because programs like DukeEngage thrust students into such different environments, they cause students to think critically about their beliefs and behaviors. Ideally, civic engagement would allow students to gain a better understanding of what they are doing, why they are engaging in certain activities, and how these engagements relate to deeper values they hold. Getting dropped in a new environment requires students to develop new ways of thinking, which foster different kinds of knowledge.
Second, civic engagement often requires students to deal with levels of poverty, life issues and ethical dilemmas they may not have previously encountered. Successful civic engagement projects tend to shock students into acknowledging their privilege. This nurtures an important lesson in empathy: students learn to stand toe-to-toe with someone they recently met, empower themselves to understand the issues of others and support communities.
It is important that civic engagement programs not cause students to feel pity for the communities with which they work. Pity enables students to stand and watch from a distance. Empathy, however, cultivates an engaged mindset and forces students to learn the issues of a community and work with that community to solve them.
It can be difficult to quantify or fully determine whether or not students actually learn these lessons. Emotional intelligence is tough to evaluate, and we appreciate when students have the opportunity to reflect on their experiences. It is also important to recognize that knowledge gained in the service of society can come in a variety of forms, including increased personal growth.
We believe that these lessons make Duke’s service programs worth the investment for three reasons.
First, the opportunity to better understand communities different from one's own is uniquely valuable, and the lessons gained from civic engagement cannot be learned in a traditional classroom.
Second, programs like DukeEngage can change a student’s outlook on his or her past. Contextualizing one’s personal history through civic engagement is more powerful than doing so inside a classroom.
Third, talking with people about their life paths allows students to reflect on their own life trajectory. It gives students a chance to reconsider their ideas about their future and to alter their plans accordingly.
Experiential learning through programs like DukeEngage should therefore be viewed as more than a short-term experience. They should be viewed as an opportunity to contextualize life interests, privileges, personal histories and future goals. We challenge students to experience learning, by experience.