Educating global citizens through community engagement

To bring the exploration of community-university engagement that has been the focus of this blog to a close, I want to focus the final two posts on the question of how post-secondary institutions can collaborate with communities to educate students for responsible citizenship.

Academia and the community are interdependent

Although I argued in earlier posts that there are significant differences between universities and communities, I recognize that academia is not as isolated as the image of the ivory tower suggests. The following examples illustrate some of the most obvious interdependencies. Post-secondary institutions depend on the community for their survival: These institutions continue to exist because they get funds from students, taxpayers, corporate donors and private philanthropists. Employers in the community depend on post-secondary institutions to supply them with skilled, knowledgeable workers. In the professional schools, ties between employers, accreditation bodies, and post-secondary administrators and instructors are particularly close. Influence flows both ways. In addition, everyone who works and studies in universities and colleges lives in “the community.” And everyone in both the academy and the community is subject to the same large economic, environmental, and social forces. Everyone experiences daily encounters with the predicaments of the human condition.

Given these interdependencies, it is perhaps surprising that most people think of the academy and the community as two distinct domains. To offer one possible explanation for this perception, I will draw on Aristotle’s conception of types of intellectual virtue. My brief (and admittedly superficial) outline of these ideas is based on a discussion of these virtues in Making Social Science Matter by Bent Flyvbjerg (2001).

Getting to know phronesis

Aristotle identified five types of intellectual virtue. Three of these are relevant to my argument:

  1. Episteme: scientific knowledge; knowledge of universals; context-independent knowledge based on analytical rationality.
  2. Techne: art or craft; context-dependent knowledge based on practical instrumental rationality; knowledge that enables the creation of a particular product.
  3. Phronesis: prudence, practical wisdom; context-dependent deliberation about values and ethics that is oriented towards action; an ability that develops through experience.

Flyvbjerg asserts that the first two virtues have become touchstones for modern society, but phronesis has been forgotten. In his book, Flyvbjerg argues for the integration of phronesis into the practice of the social sciences. Here, I want to argue for its integration into teaching and learning.

I suggest that the neglect of this third intellectual virtue coupled with an over-emphasis on the first two, especially epistemic science, has created a blind spot in our conception of the ends and means of higher education. Universities are the societal institutions that promote and protect the integrity of episteme and to some extent, techne. They focus on the advancement of science and technology and the teaching of knowledge and skills associated with these two intellectual virtues.

Post-secondary institutions have neglected the knowledge and skills associated with the ability to take wise, ethical action in particular contexts. To some extent, they have even denigrated the domain of phronesis, arguing that it is a contamination of the pure pursuit of knowledge to bring values or questions about how to respond to particular societal problems into the academy.

Universities pay lip service in institutional vision statements to the need to educate students to be socially responsible global citizens. But they do little or nothing to ensure that graduates possess the necessary knowledge, skills, abilities, or motivation to perform this role. The cultivation of these qualities, which can be linked to the concept of phronesis, is not considered serious academic activity. Discussions about what global citizenship might mean or how one might teach it occur on the margins of post-secondary campuses, if they occur at all.

I think it is time to include the concept of phronesis in the discourse about higher education and to focus on the question of how to nurture this intellectual virtue. More information about more subjects is more widely available than ever before. The pace of technological change is accelerating. But science and technology on their own cannot solve the problems facing the planet. Complex webs of competing interests need to be understood. Difficult decisions need to be made, often in the face of extreme uncertainty. How do we prepare students to navigate the demands they already face as well as the challenges of the future? How do we help students develop the practical wisdom to make ethical, informed decisions that will promote the common good when even identifying “the common good” may seem impossible?

Enlisting community partners as co-educators of phronesis

The task may be challenging but there is help at hand. While academics may feel uneasy thinking about how to understand or teach phronesis, many people in community settings practice phronesis every day (and in fact, so do academics in the context of their personal lives). While the work is not currently framed in this way, many community people are already acting as valuable allies in the cultivation of phronesis, e.g., by supervising or mentoring students doing various forms of community-based experiential learning. In fact, phronesis is already the foundation for successful community-university engagements. Faculty, staff, students, and community people who collaborate successfully with each other are practicing phronesis whether they call it by this name or not.

I think the time is right to deepen these activities by initiating collaborative efforts to explore exactly what is being learned through these engagements, to explicitly identify phronesis as a learning outcome distinct from disciplinary knowledge (episteme) or technical skills (techne) and determine how this virtue can be fostered. We need to start by acknowledging that people from the community are more likely to be experts in phronesis than academics. We also need to acknowledge that students are already developing skills and abilities that align with this concept.

At present, students’ learning of phronesis is serendipitous. It happens but educators tend not to see it because we are not looking for it. Because we are not looking for it, we cannot facilitate it intentionally. Teachable moments are missed. Since phronesis depends on experience for its emergence and since its essence is the ability to take effective action to serve the common good, community-university engagement is the ideal catalyst for its development. Having practitioners of community-university engagement become more attuned to when and how they themselves are practicing and learning phronesis will strengthen efforts to teach it.

My final post explores the specifics of how the capacity for phronesis can be learned and taught in the context of community-university partnerships.

To read my other blog posts on community-university engagement, go to Taking the Plunge.

For more on practical wisdom and its application, see Learning to be a change agent.