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Teaching for Engagement

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

Message Number: 

Two thousand years ago, Rabbi Hillel asked, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?" Our students understand the first question all too well. But no one has taught them the answer to the second one -- that they cannot fulfill their humanity in isolation from the world.


The posting below on the importance of student engagement in issues beyond

the classroom is a shorter version of a longer article that appeared in the

July/August issue of Academe, published by the American Association of

University Professors. The article is by Paul Rogat Loeb. The full

version can be found at


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Teaching While Not Teaching

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


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By Paul Rogat Loeb


We hear a lot about the retreat of students from public life. The annual

surveys suggest they care less each year about the environment, racial

understanding, community-action programs, or even discussing political

issues. Their generation has been repeatedly accused of apathy -- simply not

caring. Yet as I travel to speak, visit classes, and lead workshops at

campuses throughout the country, I see less indifference and more learned

helplessness -- the feeling that they can't change the world, so why try?

Wherever I go, small groups of students do tackle the critical issues of our

times: environmental threats, illiteracy, growing gaps between the rich and

the poor. But most feel too overwhelmed. They'll do important work

volunteering one on one, because that's tangible and concrete. But when

asked to imagine themselves taking on the deeper roots of issues they care

about, they come up blank. Our culture hasn't given them the models to take


Our cultural myths suggest people are either socially active or not: a few

saints or crazies storm out of the womb with protest signs in their hands,

but the rest of us are normal and leave the messy business of changing

society to others. The two paths never cross. But as educators, we know our

students can change their values, perspectives, and commitments3/4and grow

in powerful ways.

I think of a student at Connecticut's Fairfield University, a wealthy

doctor's son I'll call Tim. "We gave the blacks a lot," Tim said, when I

interviewed him as a first-year student. "Is it my fault if me or my parents

make the bucks so they can't?" He wondered whether racial inequality was

"maybe biological."

"I want the things I have now," Tim explained, "a nice house, a nice car, a

nice boat. I want to make enough to buy a place of my own, where . . . if

someone's bothering me, I can say 'Buddy, buzz off, this is mine. This is

what I've paid for.'"

Then Tim began to learn and to think. He was a premed student when a young

professor brought environmental issues into his organic chemistry class. At

first Tim resisted, then he started listening. Soon he joined a campus

environmental group and went into environmental remediation as a career. Now

he cringes at his earlier attitude. He says that had his teacher not had the

courage to raise difficult public issues, he never would have changed.

To foster our students' engagement, we need to help them explore critical

issues and give them models to help them overcome what psychologist Robert

Jay Lifton calls the "broken connection" between their values and actions,

between the world they inherit and the one they'll pass on. To do that, we

need to understand the barriers they face, like our society's pervasive

cynicism, and growing economic pressures.

Many also feel a lack of confidence based on a "perfect standard" for

themselves and others. They decide that before they take a public stand on

an issue, they need to know every fact, figure, and statistic, and be

eloquent enough to debate Henry Kissinger on Nightline. They also feel they

need perfect confidence about their passion for the issue, their motives for

taking it on, and the certainty that it's the most urgent cause imaginable.

"I'd like to get involved in issues of children's poverty," said a young

woman at Ohio's Denison University. "But there are so many aspects:

illiteracy, unemployment, youth violence, and abuse. I start thinking about

everything I could do and end up so exhausted I never begin." The disengaged

find it hard to imagine that human beings with ordinary hesitations and

flaws might end up helping to change the world.

Role Models

To overcome these barriers, students need examples of people, present or

past, who take action despite their doubts and uncertainties, and keep on

despite apparent failures. Yet most know little about the movements that

have most changed America.

Take Rosa Parks, one of the few activists whose name students know. Most

believe, in concert with our prevailing myths, that Parks came out of

nowhere to change history instantly when she refused to move to the back of

a Montgomery, Alabama, bus. Yet before refusing to give up her bus seat,

Parks had spent twelve years helping lead the local NAACP chapter. The

summer before, she'd attended a ten-day training session at Tennessee's

labor and civil rights organizing school, the Highlander Center, where she'd

met an older generation of civil rights activists and discussed the recent

U.S. Supreme Court decision banning "separate but equal" schools.

In other words, Parks didn't come out of nowhere. She didn't single-handedly

give birth to the civil rights movement. She didn't act alone, or on a whim.

Instead, she was part of an existing effort for change at a time when

success was far from certain. That in no way diminishes the power and

historical importance of her refusal to give up her seat. But it reminds us

that this tremendously consequential act might never have taken place

without the humble and frustrating work that she and others did earlier on.

It reminds us that her initial step of getting involved was just as

courageous and critical as the fabled moment when she refused to move to the

back of the bus. It refutes the myth that anyone who takes a committed

public stand -- or at least an effective one -- must be a larger-than-life

figure, someone with more time, energy, courage, vision, eloquence, and

knowledge than any normal person -- and certainly more than an eighteen- or

twenty-year-old student -- could ever possess.

Only a handful of students know this history. Most know even less about the

efforts of the Populists, the abolitionists, the women's suffrage movement,

and the union movements. As a result, they have little sense of what it

takes to act and persist for a difficult cause. As a student from West

Virginia told me recently, "They teach the conclusions: 'Lincoln freed the

slaves. Women got the vote. Some unions were organized.' We never learn how

change actually occurred."

Students have also been taught little about more recent examples of courage

and commitment. I can go to any campus in the country, ask about the

American student antiapartheid movement, and get nothing but blank looks.

This movement of the mid-1980s and early 1990s touched colleges across

America. It played a key role in finally passing sanctions on South Africa

and helping pave the way for democracy. But most young women and men can't

take sustenance from this history, because they don't know about it.

Nor have most students learned in any substantive way about the powerful

current efforts of their peers -- sweatshop boycotts, environmental

initiatives, union organizing campaigns, challenges to the death penalty, or

local community projects. From watching the sensationalizing TV news reports

of the World Trade Organization protests of 1999, they'd never know that

thousands of young nonviolent activists helped foster a global dialogue on

critical trade issues.

Granted, many of these efforts take place below the national radar: a single

mother at Buffalo's Erie Community College helps lead a campaign to save

threatened paralegal and nursing programs; students at Seattle Central

Community College fight to protect endangered Northwest salmon runs;

American University students get the food contract with Sodexho Marriott

canceled because of the corporation's role as the major investor in

Corrections Corporation of America, a company that runs privatized prison

labor. But even when students are participating in coordinated national

campaigns, like protests over the inadequacy of federal student financial

aid, they're unlikely to get significant thoughtful coverage. Lacking

context, it's easy for students to doubt their potential role in social


The Small Picture

The exceptions, of course, are the growing community-service efforts,

perhaps because participants don't have to deal with frustrating and painful

questions of how to shift an entire society. Today's students volunteer in

large numbers at food banks, homeless shelters, literacy campaigns, Big

Brothers and Sisters programs, senior centers, and an array of other worthy

projects. Historically, volunteerism has ebbed and flowed in tandem with

broader social advocacy. Now, however, they've separated. The one-on-one

efforts definitely matter, but in a more limited context. And even those

students most involved often feel they can do little to shape the larger

public choices that so affect the communities they serve. I think of a

Stanford student who exclaimed, in all innocence, "I've learned so much

volunteering in this shelter. I just hope my grandchildren get the chance to

volunteer in the same shelter." He meant well, but as his friends reminded

him, they hoped that by time their grandchildren came around, people

wouldn't have to be lining up for food in the richest nation on earth.

When a SUNY Buffalo environmental studies professor asked his students how

to respond to George Bush's environmental depredations, they suggested

driving their cars less and recycling more -- but not taking any larger

actions to challenge the policies they opposed. It's far easier for students

to decide that the way to change the world is to get everyone to become a

vegan than to tackle powerful economic interests, even around related issues

like the sustainability of our food production.

A decade ago, many of us thought that simply getting students out into the

community would lead to further engagement. It does teach them valuable

lessons about compassion and connection, and we'd do well to build on the

burgeoning K-12 volunteer initiatives that involve students in a broader

world, and bring these efforts to our campuses with a greater inclination at

least to get out and help. But mere volunteerism doesn't automatically lead

to speaking out on public choices, no matter how related the activity is to

students' areas of concern. We need to help them take the lessons of their

service a step further, to become advocates and witnesses.

Ordinary People Turned Extraordinary

We can provide the models and perspectives lacking in our culture. We need

to bring such models of engagement into our curriculums, drawing on the

growing service-learning efforts promoted by organizations like Campus

Compact. Otherwise, even if we address the problems of our time, we may

largely foster despair. Our students aren't all going to agree on the same

principles or political positions. But the more we create a space for them

to reflect on broader community involvement, and the more we give them a

sense of how their actions can matter, the more they will respond. No

student should graduate from our campuses without a sense of how to address

the core issues of our time.

Whatever our academic role, we can work to give students the strength and

courage to think through what they care about most -- and act on it. The

more we ourselves are involved, the more we can inspire them. When our

students see us testifying at campus or community hearings, working in a

soup kitchen, writing letters to the editor of our local papers, or taking a

stand on issues we believe in, this helps them surmount their fears of

speaking out. They see people they know and respect trying to act for the

greater common good, and this inspires them. It gives them a sense that

these questions can be part of their lives as well.

Two thousand years ago, Rabbi Hillel asked, "If I am not for myself, who

will be for me? If I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?" Our

students understand the first question all too well. But no one has taught

them the answer to the second one -- that they cannot fulfill their humanity

in isolation from the world. Many would like to be involved, but talk of

infinitely deferring their involvement to some time when they will have more

status, power, and standing. So do we, for that matter. We need to teach

them the meaning of "If not now, when?" because justice deferred is justice

denied, and involvement endlessly deferred is passivity. But if we give them

models enough, they just might join that stream of ordinary people turned

extraordinary who've helped shape a better world for us all.


By Paul Rogat Loeb, author of Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a

Cynical Time (See for more information)