Community engaged learning can help fix recurring issues

The sixties were a parallel universe to our own, with particular challenges faced back then reappearing in our own times. Studying the sixties can therefore help us understand our own time – and what universities need to do. And it shows how community engaged learning can help achieve those ends.

In the sixties there was a ‘crisis of authority’. The university was seen as a fossilised institution unable to accommodate rising student numbers, the ambitions of its young staff or the proliferation of new knowledge. The second trend we see is a sharp rise in social engagement. This new call to action was also felt in new ideals about what the university was – and who it should be for.

Inclusion of new groups was necessary to achieve social transformation. The third and last theme of the sixties that had a particular impact on the university was ‘democratisation’.

Democratisation was about more than giving students and teachers a role in university governance. It also meant sharing knowledge with all citizens so that they might gain control over their own lives. In short, the need for a radical renewal of old institutions, the mobilisation of social consciousness and action and the democratisation of society were key issues.

By the eighties, these had disappeared into the background. The call for ‘efficiency’ and ‘excellence’, driven by neoliberal logics, left the social mission of universities vague and undefined.

A similar agenda

Now, however, the three issues that determined the agenda of the university in the late sixties are back. Increasingly, universities are being asked to prove their contribution to society. Many citizens, aided by social media, have become more overtly critical of science and the democratisation of knowledge has challenged higher education as the sole proprietors of knowledge.

Just as important are doubts about the legitimacy of the university that are coming from within. Emerging critiques have questioned the priorities and pressures of the neoliberal university, with some denizens wondering if the university has become too insular, too unmoored from – particularly local – society.

The call to become more socially engaged has become more pronounced. Pressing issues such as climate change and sustainability require closer cooperation between disciplines but also with partners outside the university. Moreover, a more socially engaged science has led to better results; to secure better patient outcomes their context matters, for instance.

Last but not least the need for democratisation, though not necessarily called that, has manifested itself in the call for ‘co-creation’ and working together with citizens to identify and execute research or teaching agendas.

Rethinking the university

The ‘return’ of the sixties should again encourage us to rethink three normative questions, each linked to the three issues outlined above:

• What is the university’s responsibility to society?
• What should university graduates care about?
• How should we conceive, create and share knowledge?

Community engaged learning (CEL) can help sharpen the university’s response to each of these questions.

First, the university must be more present in society, with social partners no longer standing at a great remove from the university and relationships between university and society being central. Results certainly matter – relationships in CEL don’t last if there is nothing concrete to show for it – but it’s often the interaction between the partners that seems to affect people most in the long run.

We should shift the emphasis from offering solutions to society to wrestling together over ‘wicked problems’. In all this what really matters to community partners is the sense that they do not stand alone in their challenges. CEL, with its emphasis on the building of long-term relationships, can help the university achieve this aim.

Secondly, it is important to encourage more ‘social engagement’ from students, including when it comes to choosing strategic themes that focus research on real-life challenges. That will help to increase diversity and inclusion at the university.

What the university community can do is raise questions much more systematically about people’s responsibilities towards others and about what really matters. Research has shown that such an approach does offer positive outcomes, including “greater sensitivity and empathy; increased commitment to social justice; improved cultural competence or multi-cultural skills and a reduction in reliance on stereotypes”.

CEL, then, is about searching together, sometimes with difficulty and misunderstanding, for solutions that defy easy answers and challenge set attitudes. CEL is about stimulating the kind of thoughtfulness among all participants so that they know when to act – and to discern what really matters.

When it comes to ‘democratisation’, citizens are increasingly being drawn into teaching and research by universities as ‘assets’ rather than being seen as ‘deficit’ models that only university-generated knowledge can understand.

In CEL, community partners are drawn into the process of both learning and teaching and students also get more room to take responsibility for their actions.

But to do this more consistently, and deeply, can be really hard and it can take a lot of time on the part of the participants. Reciprocity is not always immediately possible and sometimes more transactional relationships between university and society are easier. It takes a long time just learning how to talk with each other and especially learning how to listen.

Like with most aspects of CEL, the ‘who’ of the community partners determines the character of community engaged learning itself.

Love is all you need

Last year, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences circulated a report entitled Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American democracy for the 21st century. Its overarching conclusion was perhaps surprising. It said the task ahead “requires that we find our way back to love of country and one another. We emphasise the word love. What we need is as much about our motivations as about mechanisms of change.”

Love sounds like a typical sixties word. But it may be the operative word as we repurpose the university, education and knowledge to more fully give each other the attention and care that we deserve. We should encourage each other in this important, unfinished work.

James Kennedy is professor of modern Dutch history at Universiteit Utrecht, Netherlands. This is an edited version of his distinguished inaugural address at Universiteit Utrecht in November.