Just as a prison can be a university, so too can a university be a prison, one whose bars are orthodoxy, indifference, or disengagement from the larger community. After September 11, 2001, the world is a more dangerous place than ever. The need to prepare university students for a mercurial society and an unpredictable future is greater than it ever was. I no longer believe that it is enough for universities to expand the intellect and talents of their students. It is not enough to provide a great education. That is still central and essential to our mission, but it is not sufficient. We cannot hope to cope with the complex threats and challenges we face today if we “silo” our knowledge and faculty, or our students, inside carefully constructed and vigorously defended disciplinary, institutional, and cultural walls. Our problems are too complex and there are too many other things—about the world and about themselves—that university students need to learn and that we need to learn from them.

Universities can and should be the exemplars of a new kind of thoughtful civic engagement and robust public discourse. This kind of civic engagement is neither easy nor accidental. It is strategic, comprehensive, intense, and purposeful. At its best, it weaves itself in and through every aspect of campus life, from medical research and particle physics to classical studies, student volunteerism, and economic development. To cultivate active citizenship and civic engagement, universities must pursue multiple initiatives in every aspect of their activities, from student life to the classroom to business practices and investment. Universities are in a unique position to bridge communities, cultivate leadership, and model effective public discourse.

Universities can develop academic service-learning courses that find synergy in the combination of scholarship and service. Such courses feature a direct and conscious link between the application and social value of knowledge and the academic core of the university. These are not second-rate, watered-down, “applied” field sessions. They are not academic credit for what should properly be volunteer activities. When well-conceived and well-implemented, they are high-order creations of intellectual sophistication and public spirit that teach students how to engage actively with those they may never otherwise come to know and work with. For example, here at Penn we have developed service-learning courses that bring about enduring community improvements such as effective public schools, neighborhood economic development, and vital community organizations. These academic programs find synergy in the combination of scholarship and service, in their application of theories to practice, and the stimulation of new theorizing out of practical experience. In a typical Penn program, a student performs service as part of an internship that is coordinated with scholarly research—to the mutual benefit of research and service.

This program is well illustrated by the work of Dr. Robert Giegengack, a geologist, chair of the Department of Earth and Environmental Science, and past director of the Institute for Environmental Studies. His class in Environmental Studies covers basic research in environmental toxins, and in that respect is a traditional arts and sciences course. In addition, however, members of the class help public-school students and their families, most living below the poverty line, to identify sources of lead in and around their homes. Undergraduates work with students from a nearby middle school to test soil samples from their yards, and dust and paint samples from their homes, and assist in mapping the risk of lead exposure in the neighborhood. In addition, the middle-school students work with the undergraduates to design materials that are disseminated to parents and neighbors warning them of the dangers of lead exposure and how to decrease the chances of lead ingestion by the group most at risk of its ill effects, preschool toddlers. As a short-term program of outreach and information dissemination, the program has been a dramatic success. School children are now far more knowledgeable about the problem of lead exposure in their homes and neighborhood, and middle schools now have a unit of study installed in their curriculum that focuses on the lead problem. But the educational benefits of this program to our undergraduates are also enormous. Moreover, the findings of the program have enabled us better to understand the epidemiology of lead exposure in Philadelphia and other cities, and may help other schools in Philadelphia and elsewhere adopt the program with similar success. This course and many others like it connect the university and the world outside in transformative ways that build new communities and create new forms of public engagement.

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2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 11/04/03

The University as Discourse Community
By Judith Rodin
Illustration by David Hollenbach

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