Developing Civic Engagement opportunities across the university is a key strategy in “Wesleyan 2020: A Framework for Planning.” In 2007-2008 President Roth appointed the Civic Engagement Committee to recommend ways to expand these opportunities, and the proposal for a Civic Engagement Certificate (CEC) is an outgrowth of that committee’s work. Like other certificates, the CEC was developed to provide guidance to students (and their advisors) as they choose courses to achieve their academic goals. In the Spring of 2020, we transitioned the certificate program to a Civic Engagement Minor (CEM). The CEM outlines what students should do who wish to acquire a reflective and critical understanding of civic engagement. It will enable them to attain a greater degree of curricular coherence – and, indeed, of coherence extending beyond the curriculum – than would be possible without the minor.

In 2008 Wesleyan achieved recognition from the Carnegie Foundation as an Engaged Community. This recognition came after a two-stage application and extensive documentation of our activities. We see the CEC as a way to build on Wesleyan’s strengths and enable the University to become a leader in the emerging academic discipline of civic engagement.  The CEC will provide coherence to what Wesleyan students are already doing, and the two courses bookending the certificate – a Foundations course and Senior Seminar – will give students a deeper understanding of their civic engagement experiences.

Civic engagement is increasingly recognized in the Academy as an essential learning goal. According to the Association of American Colleges and Universities, educational activities such as thematically linked learning communities, community-based research, collaborative projects, service-learning, mentored internships, reflective experiential learning and study abroad are helping students advance on this essential learning goal.At first glance it may appear that civic engagement is more properly an extracurricular pursuit than an academic field of study.

Obviously, people have been engaged in the political and social lives of their communities and nations without stepping back to reflect on their activities. At the same time, the study of civic engagement has a very long history. In the Laws Plato complained "that no human being ever legislates anything, but that chances and accidents of every sort, occurring in all kinds of ways, legislate everything for us" (709a). Plato’s complaint was premised upon a belief in the possibility of what we might call collective agency. He envisioned a form of political activity that would not leave our collective fates to chance, but would enable us to self-consciously direct our affairs in accordance with the aspirations and commitments we have deliberately accepted. At least as an ideal, the political sphere can be a realm of human freedom, one in which we use our energies and wit not simply to adapt to our fate, but consciously to shape it.It may seem odd to think of Plato as a theorist of civic engagement since in his ideal society most citizens’ civic activities are effectively controlled by a narrow elite. In a democracy, by contrast, we envision all citizens participating in the exercise of collective agency, and in a democracy the scope of civic engagement extends beyond the specifically political sphere to encompass civil society as well. Civic engagement encompasses a wide range of activities in which individuals work to strengthen their communities, to realize common goods, to enhance the capacities and dispositions necessary for democratic self-rule, and in general to deliberately shape their common life.