GWCH Chapter 1: What is Civic Engagement?

Society has experienced a true revival of public interest in civic engagement.

Robert Putnam’s (2000) epic work Bowling Alone brought the idea of civic participation to the forefront of the public mind. The value of civic participation is essential to the process of value implementation in the form of civic engagement. Civic engagement is a value choice, and the implementation of that value choice is individual civic participation in the community. One of the most basic definitions of civic engagement involves thinking about how government, society, and citizens interact. In terms of how scholars discuss civic engagement, the definition takes on a benevolent feel, referencing citizen activities that benefit civil society. Strengthening civic engagement, in practice, involves building civic skills, increasing active voter participation, and using public service announcements to encourage volunteering to strengthen civil society. Watershed events like 9-11 have created a reflective sense of national interest and significantly increased the willingness of individuals to participate in civic engagement.

The best way to describe civic engagement is to take a step back from current views and look from the perspective of the potential benefits that higher civic engagement provides society. Civic engagement is increasing civic participation by encouraging participation in civil society. That participation could come in the form of volunteering, campaigning, or even discussing community issues with neighbors. Increasing civic participation through civic engagement breaks down the disconnect between individuals and the community. Robert Putnam (2000) clearly made the case that individuals within modern society largely have replaced community activities with social isolation. Helping to break down the disconnect between the individual and the community is valuable to strengthening the community. Reciprocally, strengthening the community through civic engagement increases the amount of active participation within the community.

How does one spread the ethic of civic engagement? Civic engagement has to come from fostering strong community leadership from both professionals and community organization leaders. These leaders give the community a significant advantage by creating a long-term vision for increasing civic engagement. Civic participation through active civic engagement can involve spreading the ethic of volunteerism. Allowing individuals to work for community organizations is an important part of growing the capacity and size of civic engagement within the community.

Defining civic engagement in terms of communities involves identifying three different types of communities. We have communities of place, idea, and circumstance. Individuals can participate in issues associated with the place where they live as a form of civic participation based on engaging in core issues that determine the structure of the community. Neighborhood groups have the potential to facilitate civic engagement by offering a venue for civic participation in the community. Civic engagement also can be fostered by communities of ideas where individuals within the community can come together to participate in dialogue and action about specific issues. Civic engagement surrounding communities of circumstance often focuses on volunteering and resolving community-oriented problems.

Now is the time to move forward to increase civic engagement within civil society. Civic engagement is a most important emerging value because of its potential to strengthen the social fabric and the community as a whole. Programs like graduation with civic honors can encourage practical solutions to increasing civic engagement like emphasizing the necessity of recognizing a commitment to civic engagement. Graduation with civic honors is a way to institutionalize the encouragement of civic engagement through official and public recognition. Society should recognize that academic achievement and civic engagement go hand in hand. For higher education to benefit society, educators cannot merely educate people. Educators must strive to educate people to become good citizens. Building a good society fosters a community that encourages collaboration and engagement from every citizen within society.

Higher education is the key to moving forward as a society. We have to be able to educate future generations about the importance of civic engagement. Being able to inform future generations of the potential benefits of increasing civic engagement through encouraging volunteering and civic participation is essential to building a stronger society. Civic engagement truly is the ability of an individual to be a vibrant part of the community by participating in the betterment of society. However, devising practical ideas that can encourage civic engagement is more difficult than it sounds. That is why high-reward, low-cost solutions like graduation with civic honors can bring civic engagement to the forefront of higher education.

Currently, the Civic Honors Project lobbies to spread the word about graduation with civic honors and strives to work and collaborate with organizations that have an impact on the community. The current graduation with civic honors initiative focuses on identifying potential avenues for expanding the number of higher education institutions offering graduation with civic honors.


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