Classifying civic engagement: Reflections on our social entrepreneurship symposium

007115_cedieidisc020Last week, the DOCE and Duke’s Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative co-hosted a symposium, Social Entrepreneurship and the Business of Civic Engagement at Colleges & Universities. The symposium featured guests Marina Kim (Ashoka U), Bill Wetzel (Clinton Global Initiative University), MacKenzie Moritz (The Franklin Project), David Scobey (The New School for Public Engagement, Imagining America), Ted Fiske (guidebook author and former New York Times education editor) and a number of Duke faculty members and program leaders – Matt NashTony BrownEric MlynDavid Malone,  Tom Nechyba and Bob Malkin.

Our conversations centered on the intersection between civic engagement, social entrepreneurship and higher education. It became clear that everyone there had much in common – we were all believers, in some way, in the importance of civic engagement in higher education, for the good of both students and for society. Our participants represented three main approaches to civic engagement: social entrepreneurship, engaged scholarship and community service. Much of the discussion focused on the distinctions between those approaches: what are their relative strengths and weaknesses? Are some approaches more appropriate than others at different times? However, as the day went on I began to feel as though arguing over approaches was somewhat limiting, and that most civic engagement efforts cannot be so easily classified.

When our groups convened for a discussion over lunch, Ted Fiske, a former education editor for the New York Times and author of the Fiske Guide to Colleges, made introductory remarks in which he noted that there are two general ideals of higher education – the liberal ideal of training students for good citizenship and the vocational ideal of training students to succeed in the workforce. Civic engagement, Fiske asserted, is where those two ideals meet.

Fiske’s comments sparked a debate about social entrepreneurship: is it simply a pragmatic approach aimed to make students more employable when they graduate? One proponent argued that social entrepreneurship education is very compatible with a liberal arts education – it helps students develop skills such as critical thinking, teamwork and problem assessment. But another panelist raised a concern about entrepreneurship flouting the ideals of the traditional model of education as apprenticeship: “It’s important for students to see themselves as apprentices, not just changemakers.”

Throughout the day, however, the conversation focused less on the relative merits of one approach versus another. Participants discussed the importance of civic engagement and how we can get more students to participate. They debated how to ensure that students at non-elite colleges have as many civic engagement opportunities as students at colleges like Duke. It became clear that our participants shared many beliefs in the importance of education and of civic engagement – as Ashoka U’s Marina Kim said, our guests shared “more commonalities than differences.”

And in the public panel, in a conversation that seemed to underscore much of the tone of the day, Dean Laurie Patton, who moderated the conversation, asked the panelists about inter-generational fights: what frustrates youth most about the older generation? What frustrates the older generation most about students? After several panelists offered complaints about students’ impatience, lack of humility and lack of ability to listen to a community, Kim pointed out that much of that argument is an age, not a generational, difference. Perhaps older generations have always accused youth of being reckless, impatient and lacking humility.

Throughout the day, it became clear how difficult it is to accurately classify programs by their approaches to engagement. For example, while we classified the Franklin Project as a service organization, they recently announced that they will sponsor a “Service Year + Higher Ed Innovation Challenge.” A week later, the state of Virginia announced that they will be the first in the nation to become an Employer of National Service, which provides service year participants a direct pipeline to jobs. The Franklin Project leads this effort along with the Corporation for National and Community Service, the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps. If the Franklin Project wants to continue to move toward their goal of every American fulfilling a year of service, this sort of political support will be essential. Although the Franklin Project advocates for a service approach to civic engagement, they integrate advocacy and social entrepreneurship as a means to more effectively reach their goals.

CGI U, as well, lends itself well to many approaches. Although it’s a social entrepreneurship organization, our office awards funding to CGI U based on the degree to which they integrate their projects with their Duke education – encouraging students to combine public scholarship with their social entrepreneurship approach to civic engagement. Nationally, Up to Us, one of the largest CGI U-sponsored projects, is encouraging students to think of innovative ways to tackle a very political issue, the nation’s high level of federal debt.

If recent media coverage is any indication, there seems to be a rising tide of criticism against certain approaches to civic engagement in higher education. Last week Duke’s Assistant Vice Provost for Civic Engagement Eric Mlyn co-authored with colleague Amanda Moore McBride an article opining that social entrepreneurship, independent from movement-building and political engagement, will not cure the world’s problems. In a New York Times article, also published last week, detractors of Teach for America made a similar criticism of that organization’s service approach, calling it a “Band-Aid” that does not address the fundamental political conditions that hurt our nation’s schools. It seems that many organizations have decided that no one approach is a panacea to all of society’s problems.

My takeaway from this event – and one I will continue to consider into the future – is that most effective programs approach civic engagement in a variety of ways, rather than advocating just one method. On our website we list Duke’s programs, student activities and courses by approach – classifying each as either service, advocacy, innovation, engaged scholarship or community development. Many – perhaps most – of these programs, courses and activities fall into more than one category. Now I wonder: are we pigeonholing projects by sorting them into categories? This symposium was thought-provoking, and our guests’ comments have left me reconsidering how we classify and consider our programs.