A movie that is regularly re-run on television is “The American President.” Michael Douglas, speaking as the fictitious president, says: “America isn’t easy… America is advanced citizenship.”
That is a message that higher education should never forget and should never fail to pass along to young minds. At the same time, however, institutions of higher education have a responsibility to remind Americans (not just students) that advanced citizenship is active citizenship.
And that activity is not restricted to participation in the democratic process; the most valuable acts of citizenship are the acts we do in cooperation with and for the benefit of others. In short, advanced citizenship requires acts of service.
Over the past decade, higher education has understood this as many colleges and institutions have established programs of service learning. So much good has happened in this regard that we often take for granted the notion of service as a part of a college experience.
The challenge we now face is to not become complacent. Colleges and universities must continue to find new ways to show that service is more than an occasional act of goodness; it is the path toward personal achievement and the backbone of a democratic society that seeks to improve itself.
When students come to Emory & Henry College, they are asked to envision the world in which they would like to live and are then challenged to forge that world – right away. At Emory & Henry, we emphasize that the work of improving the world does not begin after students have obtained their degrees; we stress that as students they are in a unique position to influence change and the dialogue leading to that change.
Our students have taken up this charge with great energy and awareness. Among their many recent acts of service, E&H students have organized communities to deal with the after effects of devastating floods, they have created programs to help migrant farm workers with their housing, health care and language needs, and they have obtained thousands of dollars in development block grants for area communities.
E&H students are applying what they learn in the classroom from virtually every discipline – from business to the sciences and from education to the arts – to the work of building communities. As they strive to improve the human condition, they are engaging in discussions in and out of the classroom about important issues that affect people locally and throughout the world.
The world today faces enormous challenges in every area of life, from corporate accountability to social justice to biogenetics. Merely considering the totality of these problems can sap our will. But citizenship education that boldly and consistently emphasizes service can rejuvenate our hope.