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Beyond the Classroom

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Angela Pool-Funai
January 19, 2016

Recently, I spoke with a retired professor who shared that he used to give the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services exam (the Naturalization Test) as a pre- and post-assessment in his introductory American government classes. He said he was regularly astounded at how poorly most students did on the exam at the beginning of the semester. These were students who were born and reared in the United States, yet they did not possess even basic civic knowledge required for the citizenship exam.

Scholars have long understood that adolescents gain an understanding of political culture and establish their own foundations for political socialization through the influence of parents, close interpersonal relationships, school and the media. The level of each area of impact varies by individual, but research indicates that educational programs incorporating experiential (or project-based) learning activities show promise in developing future generations of informed citizens. Thanks to interactive initiatives like retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s iCivics program, K-12 civic education has been reinvigorated in recent years. The beauty of such hands-on curriculum is that it transports the students from lecture and memorization to active citizenship learning.

funai - college studentPrograms such as iCivics are a terrific resource, but why stop with grades K-12? I would submit that engaging students in participatory civic education is just as important (if not more so) at the post-secondary level. In college, students begin to narrow down their career interests, learn about political action through student clubs and activities and may even vote for the first time. If ever there is a time to have a strong foundation about how the government works, it is before someone ventures to the ballot box.

Former U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan once commented:

“Many, if not most, institutions of higher education now offer civic learning as an elective but not as an integral component of preparing students to compete in a knowledge based, global economy.” 

Speaking as an educator, I frequently encounter college freshmen whose only exposure to civics was a one-semester government class in high school, plus whatever factual nuggets they picked up from U.S. history classes.

Only about two-thirds of high school graduates in America enroll in college the following semester. That means out of the freshmen mentioned above who take an introductory American government class or similar course in college (if it is even required), there are countless others who will never learn civics beyond high school. At least one third of our high school graduates will enter adulthood with scant knowledge of civics.

We owe it to ourselves to equip students with a practical, tangible understanding of the public sector. As public administration practitioners and educators, we are in an extraordinary position to provide civic learning opportunities not only for our PA majors, but also other students at our institutions.

Through project-based scenarios that may begin in the classroom but reach into the external environment, students can gain an understanding of and appreciation for the way government agencies and the nonprofit sector are at work around them. Here at Southern Utah University, for example, our MPA program offers concentrations in state and local government or higher education administration, as well as the general MPA track. Our graduate students participate in experiential learning courses under the supervision and mentorship of government officials, nonprofit organization executives and administrators in higher education. Perhaps there are untapped opportunities to collaborate with colleagues across campus and around the community to provide new experiences for undergraduate students to be exposed to the inner workings of the public sector, as well.

I do not have a grand solution; if anything, I have more questions than answers. As I tell my freshmen, though, questions are OK. Questions mean we are still learning and trying to find solutions. Let us continue finding ways to engage students—at all levels—to begin tackling some of those big questions together.

Author: Angela Pool-Funai is an assistant professor of political science and public administration at Southern Utah University. Opinions are her own. She encourages feedback and can be reached at [email protected].

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