Civic Engagement, Ethics and the Choices One Makes

Imagine that it is the fall of 1927 and that you are a student in a Biology class at the Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham College). Imagine also that your lab partner is a young woman named Rachel Carson, just starting her junior year, a dedicated student eager to discuss with you her developing intellectual interests: marine life and the oceans. What are the chances that your exchanges with Rachel would be engaging in a way that would sustain her interest in science—an interest that would eventually lead her to publish Silent Spring, her landmark book about the vulnerability of the natural environment?

Jump ahead thirty years to the fall of 1957, the beginning of your senior year in high school. Let’s make it September 25 to be exact—and imagine yourself mingling among hundreds of other members of the student body outside of your school, Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas as nine black students attempted for a second time to begin classes, escorted this time by troops from the 101st Airborne. What are the odds that you would have joined with a number of other students who had welcoming sentiments for the “Little Rock nine” or with the many students (and adults) who chose to express only hate?

As William Faulkner noted, History is not was, History is. While we don’t get to choose our moment in time, we do get to choose whether, in our time, we will speak out, take action, and help inform unfolding events—in other words, to become civically engaged—or whether we will remain silent by-standers to history. We are attached to this time and to the places that stretch before us, but how many of us will ever bond with our moment in history… claim it, act upon it? How many of us will, with more serious and humane intent, encourage others to join us in becoming active contributors to conversations related to the generation of possible solutions to the most vexing and consequential issues of our time?

In business and industry, in the trades and professions, in public service,—in all human affairs—questions about character, civic engagement, and ethical reasoning challenge us. In America alone, hundreds of thousands of families are burdened by poverty and its attendant social ills: crime, addictive behavior, and mental illness. In far too many American communities hatred, violence, and disregard for the rights of others prevails.

In the United States as elsewhere, the gap between the haves and the have-nots is wider than ever, and its consequences are mirrored in schools by declines in student interest, behavior, and performance. They are also mirrored in our neighborhoods and workplaces by inequality of opportunity, by disparate levels of income, and by inequitable access to gainful employment across gender, race, and culture. As they continue unabated or worsen, these disparities result in widespread individual and collective malaise and discontent.

In addition to helping future teachers and leaders learn to improve the intellectual capacities of their students, employees, colleagues, and comrades-in-arms, faculty members in our college’s educator and leadership preparation programs are also committed to engaging them in informed, thoughtful conversations about what type of communities they most desire and about the way they (and their students) ought to conduct their lives. We embrace the challenge of trying to raise not just the intellectual quotient of our candidates and the individuals whose lives they will help guide, but also the ethical, just, and moral quotient of professional practice, civic engagement, and personal choice.

Investment in character development, civic engagement, and ethical reasoning serves our nation’s economic agenda as well as its interest in social justice. Our responsibility as educators and leaders goes beyond merely transmitting whatever values happen to be in vogue in society but to question those understandings and—drawing upon the best that humankind has imagined—contemplate possibilities that promise to enrich the lives of all. To this end, we choose to engage our candidates in exploring how we might reach out with others in more consequential ways to offer hope to those who see little reason to feel hopeful; what more we might do together to appreciate and help uplift citizens of other regions and other nations different from us who struggle with their history-making; and how we might respond more effectively to a wounded planet in desperate need of healing. Ultimately, hope rests in the promise and possibility of students and young people in our schools and communities whose lives we will touch mainly through the teaching, mentorship, and leadership skills of our candidates.

Phil Wishon
March 2014