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Developing civic-minded university graduates

15 May 2015 - 11:00

by Dr Janice McMillan

How do we prepare students for a world that is increasingly unknowable, disruptive, unequal and disturbing? Dr Janice McMillan, convenor of UCT's Global Citizenship Programme, writes about the importance of 'cultivating humanity': teaching students to critically examine their own traditions and beliefs, recognise their community and fellowship with human beings around the world, and consider what it's like to walk in someone else's shoes.

Students of UCT's Global Citizenship Programme helping out at Mothers Unite in Lavender Hill. Founded in 2008 in a mother's home, Mothers Unite is something of a safe haven, where over 150 children have access to books, computers, art therapy, sports and play – as an alternative to the gangsterism they're witness to on the streets. Photo courtesy of the UCT Global Citizen Facebook page.

Living in the age of 'supercomplexity' in which the world is increasingly unknowable, disruptive, unequal and disturbing, we are constantly assailed by difficult questions, competing priorities and a multiplicity of choices and options. In South Africa and Africa more broadly, we see this daily in the urgent, complex, heated debates around poverty, inequality, democracy, justice, responsibility and restitution.

Many people argue that universities need to play a more active role in building more 'civic-minded, global citizens', who can deal with these complex challenges. Universities need to move beyond the 'mantra' of knowledge and skills and consider ways to bring students into, and equip students for 'being' in the world in new ways.

Martha Nussbaum, an American philosopher and author, writes in one of her essays, Cultivating Humanity and World Citizenship, that there are three capacities that higher education should nurture in 'cultivating humanity' in students: the ability to critically examine one's own traditions and beliefs; the recognition of one's community and fellowship with human beings around the world; and the ability to consider what it might be like to walk in another person's shoes.

Taken together these capacities – if they are built into teaching and learning – can help to develop students as active, critical, aware and civic-minded graduates.

Creating civic mindedness

Higher education in Africa and South Africa is increasingly shaped by global pressures and national priorities; given this, some authors have commented on the need for more 'civic-minded' graduates. The work of such authors gives meaning and identity to the term civic minded.

Yusuf Waghid, professor of philosophy of education at Stellenbosch University, views attributes such as compassion, criticality and a sense of responsibility as necessary to enable students to contribute towards what he calls "civic reconciliation and transformation".

Crain Soudien, professor of education and deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, has argued that in the relationship between education and citizenship, there are two positions.

The first position is that we need to teach young people their history and culture in order to "build their dignity and feelings of self-worth", and the second position is that education needs to provide young people with the "high skills knowledge – the cultural capital – that will enable them to operate within the complexity of a globalised world".

As challenging as it is, Soudien has noted that it is critically important to give students both a sense of self and of local history, and a connection to the kinds of knowledge that can enable them to understand the complexity of the global.

Embedding civic mindedness

Cultivating a sense of self and developing an understanding of the concerns of both local and global communities have shaped the development of the  UCT's Global Citizenship Programme (GCP), launched in 2010.

Linked to the university's goals of enhancing the quality and profile of its graduates, of being an Afropolitan university and of contributing meaningfully to South Africa's development challenges, the programme aims to:

  • Expose students to global citizenship and social justice issues, beyond degree or discipline.
  • Develop in students the capacity for leadership on contemporary global-political and social justice issues.
  • Promote awareness of students as future global citizens.

The campus-wide GCP programme is open to all students from all faculties and levels of study.

The mainstays of the programme are three extra-curricular short courses: Global Debates, Local Voices (GC1); Service, Citizenship and Social Justice (GC2); and 60 hours of self-organised community service with structured reflection (GC3).

The need to fit in with students' academic responsibilities has determined the programme's strong online learning component. The three courses appear on the transcript as continuing education short courses.

The GCP is a learning programme but not a conventional academic project. It engages students as thoughtful and opinionated scholars and citizens, who are keen to learn, think about, critique and respond to key contemporary issues.

Given our African context, we bring social justice into the framing of our questions and considerations from the outset and use this lens to think about whether and how we might be responsive to, and responsible for, the world in which we live.

The programme is concerned both with 'the global' and its connections with 'the local'. Two of the short courses look at these issues, albeit in slightly different ways.

GC1 considers global issues first and asks how these are realised or represented locally – that is, it focuses on how we respond to global issues locally manifested. GC2 focuses more specifically on how, in our engagement and partnerships with local communities, we have the potential to mirror global dynamics and power relationships in microcosm.

At both levels we challenge students to confront the centrality of power in local and global relationships.

In addition, while this programme is important in its role in building active citizens, it has a key role to play in the making of the intellectual. It is about building a sense of citizenship and social activism through intellectual engagement.

We want students to have the opportunity to be critical thinkers – not just through opportunities for social activism and engagement, but also through deep and engaged critical thinking, so that they also have a sense of the world of ideas and how these two aspects are related. These are key attributes of civic-minded citizens.

It is clear that a concept like a 'civic-minded graduate' has both universal meanings and local significance. Both South Africa in particular and Africa more broadly require graduates to engage with social justice issues, from a global and local standpoint.

Education therefore needs to be designed not just to be about but also in response to injustice. There is a need to frame understandings of civic mindedness and global citizenship so that we can help students enact these identities in particular contexts in specific ways.

From our work on the GCP, learning and education for civic mindedness and citizenship provides an important 'lens on the world', a way of learning about and engaging with the world in new ways, reflecting new forms of being through which students can develop new sensitivities.

Finally, we believe that challenging one's assumptions and really understanding the meaning and practice of critical thinking, analysis and reflection, are key to dealing with uncertainty and to engaging in more inclusive and non-stereotypical ways with others, thereby developing civic mindedness.

Crucially, this provides an opportunity for an enriched and wider education experience outside of one's primary degree programme.

As the GCP enters its sixth year, the challenge is how to bring relevant aspects of the teaching and learning approaches on the programme to bear on the curriculum more broadly.

The programme has developed a credit-bearing course in the engineering faculty that has run successfully for the past two years, but more colleagues need to be encouraged to open up opportunities for socially responsive teaching and learning across the disciplines.

We need teaching and learning that engages the student not only as an emergent professional but also as a committed, thoughtful and civic-minded young citizen. This means rethinking pedagogy and the complex relationship between knowledge, skills and values.

Janice McMillan is a senior lecturer in the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching, and convenor of the Global Citizenship Programme at UCT. This article originally appeared in University World News on 6 February 2015.