Civic Readiness Initiative Building On, Fosters Engaged Leadership
“We need to teach people there is an art of how to disagree. It is not about how, for me to be right, you have to be wrong,” said Deb Hopp (BA ’75, journalism).
“The classroom shouldn’t be an echo chamber. It should be a sounding board. I wasn't the greatest student in high school, but where I excelled was when my crazy ideas were embraced and the result was I wanted to be more participatory rather than less,” said Christopher “Kit” Dahl (BA ‘65, history).
“Diversity is one of CLA’s main pillars. We were hearing about campuses rejecting speakers and groups attacking one another about their differences. The whole purpose of going to college is to be part of having discussions across and about differences,” said Hopp.
These observations and concerns compelled Hopp and Dahl to lead efforts that have resulted in CLA’s new Civic Readiness Initiative (CRI), an aspirational plan to provide coursework options and a larger four-year framework for students to develop knowledge and skills related to social divisions and civic life.
“We started with the students. These were already well-informed kids. They were so wonderful. During one roundtable dinner, with facilitators and discussion, they admitted not only were they the ones shutting down the discussion, they also felt shut down. One student even said that ‘regardless of what I believe, I can tell what my teacher wants me to write, and I write to that to get a good grade.’”
“We’ve been working on this for almost four years and we agreed that we could come up with all the programs we think we want, but it wasn’t about our assessment...it needed to be built with a strong faculty response and consideration of student opinions and needs,” Dahl said.
With Dean John Coleman, they put together discussions with faculty leaders and immediately saw opportunities for valuable interdepartmental work.
“This isn’t driven by one discipline. It is drawing from journalism, history, economics, and more — they all have something to say about this. The faculty have seen it’s important. It’s their baby, and we’ve been in the delivery room for a long time. We were the people along the road who were ready to listen and to work on this together,” said Hopp.
Additionally, in talking with leaders at institutions with similar programs, they concluded it was important for the CLA initiative to become more than a class or an add-on, but be central to our work.
Minnesota as a leader
“This is not a political program. It is not defined by politics,” said Dahl. “The Civic Readiness Initiative is a fairly audacious undertaking and it absolutely should be undertaken here in Minnesota. The vast majority who attend a university tend to stay close to that university, so we view this as a long-term opportunity to affect the civic engagement of the whole state, starting here and then cascading over time,” said Dahl.
“This also fits with CLA’s career readiness work,” Hopp said. “This will make a profound difference for young people—kids are getting into the workplace and being confronted in ways they’re not accustomed to by colleagues and coworkers. The skills developed through the Civic Readiness Initiative mean they will be better able to relate to those completely different than themselves.”
“Our best employees are liberal arts graduates because they know how to thoroughly vet ideas through critical thinking,” said Dahl. “The potential for a certificate through CRI means graduates can show an employer that they took time to get this.”
Now and beyond
The CLA Civic Readiness Initiative will be launched in the fall of 2021 and offer a consortium of freshman seminars focused on civic engagement. It will be the first of various stages to implement curricular options over several years, contingent upon interest, feasibility, and funding.
The CRI will also foster public programming and community engagement through a website and events, such as a series “Land of 10,000 Perspectives” that will spotlight leading CLA researchers and national speakers whose work is connected to civic-readiness themes.
“The University is the single most influential institution. It’s important to us, to your children. We’re not locked into a professional curriculum and are all about the larger world and the analytical, critically thinking mind.
“Both of us are graduates of CLA, and both of us have been active in different parts of college engagement,” said Dahl. “We both have an unbelievable belief UMN is the cornerstone of almost everything we’ve done in our lives, what we volunteer for, whom we hire, and our broader understanding of our world. We believe democracy isn't about canceling other people out. Take a look in Washington...things aren’t working. They’re not talking to each other. We believe the Civic Readiness Initiative offers a way for others...particularly alumni and business leaders...to become involved. There are a lot of different ways to give to the U. This gives me a reason to say, ‘this is something I really think is important,’ and gives a center around which students can join the dialogue.”