A couple of years ago, Forbes Magazine and other news outlets reported on the “Smartest Colleges” in the United States. The brain training company Lumosity announced that MIT was smartest, followed by Harvard and Stanford, based on how well students had performed on a battery of online puzzles.
Many of my students (and I) suspected that this focus on “smartness” received more attention than it deserves. Although puzzle solving may be a reasonable indicator of success for certain occupations, such as computer programming, it’s not necessarily a good measure of whether a person will make a good citizen.
For one thing, good citizens are likely to feel responsibility towards their fellow citizens and have the “democratic faith” that John Dewey wrote about. For another thing, puzzle solving is a far cry from the types of “wicked problems” such as inequality, oppression, climate change and environmental degradation that citizens must actually address (and not just through voting). Moreover, the mistaken and dangerous idea that exact answers can be found for complex social problems by treating the world like a puzzle or a computer algorithm, may be more likely to prevail if puzzle solving is seen as the ultimate achievement.
I teach at the Evergreen State College (WA, USA), a non-traditional progressive liberal arts college. Evergreen is a public college that offers a variety of interdisciplinary programs that are often team-taught. Students are evaluated with written narratives, not letter or numeric grades. And I’m happy to say that Evergreen is one of the 40 colleges featured in the book Colleges That Change Lives.
At Evergreen I offer classes and a research lab that examine — and practice — civic intelligence, the capacity for people to work together effectively and equitably to address shared challenges. Civic intelligence puts the focus on our actual and potential ability to govern ourselves wisely. More importantly, it looks at how we might diagnose and improve this ability. My students and I have been exploring the idea of civic intelligence for at least 15 years. We explore how people might make their communities, and the world, better for all.
In response to our concerns about “smartness” as the über ranking of colleges, our “Social Imagination and Civic Intelligence” program decided to explore alternative ranking approaches based on civic intelligence. The exercise proved to be educational for all of us; the challenges of identifying, interpreting, and presenting social data can’t really be appreciated if one only sees somebody else’s final results. And I admit that the utopian notion that colleges might actually compete for high civic intelligence scores was an exciting prospect.
Working collaboratively, we identified five broad dimensions that highlight how the civic intelligence of a college could be assessed. Obtaining viable values for these and somehow rolling them together in a meaningful way are the logical next steps. Then, in a civically intelligent spirit, we hope to evaluate this approach with results and feedback from several colleges and revise our approach as necessary.
(1) How does the college conduct its own affairs in civically intelligent ways?
Are meetings open and are finances and grievance procedures transparent? Are there processes in place for communication across sectoral boundaries and is there openness and participation in curricular development? Do faculty and students participate in its evaluation?
(2) What does the college do to promote civic intelligence among students?
This includes the classroom and other forms of evaluated teacher / student activities as well as other activities outside the classroom including student groups and activities, informal as well as formal. We also identified interdisciplinary classes, especially those focused on societal problem-solving, as very important, as well as the quantity and quality of student engagement and leadership in educational endeavors.
(3) How does the college cultivate civic intelligence in the community?
This was intended to identify how the college cultivated civic intelligence beyond its perimeter and to what extent the work of the college influences the wider world. What percentage of students at the college are engaged in internships with educational, service, or non-profit organizations? Is there a legacy of non-profit groups in the community that were launched by students or faculty at the college or though educational efforts that started there? (See, for example, the Sustainability in Prisons Project). Are events related to civic intelligence open to the public? Does the college maintain a community partnership focus through centres and ongoing collaborative projects? And does the college enter into alliances with other colleges to build networks of civic intelligence that increase dialogue and innovation and provide more opportunities for students and faculty members?
(4) How does the college address significant societal issues and needs?
This refers primarily to how well and to what extent the college performs its social role of preparing students for the future. A college that accepted a large number of students who typically aren’t accepted, or are statistically more likely to drop out, runs the risk of receiving low marks in many ranking systems. But if the college educates these students and graduates them in higher numbers, those schools would be demonstrating higher civic intelligence than ones that only accepted those who seemed most likely to succeed. For this question, we also identified questions related to financial barriers, rates of student graduation, support for minority, first-generation students and other traditionally marginalized groups, and general success with employment after college with special attention to jobs in education, non-profits, and social service.
(5) What were the enduring lessons in respect to civic intelligence that the college imparted on its graduates?
Learning this probably means obtaining some measures related to attitudes, awareness, skills, or, even, social imagination when students enter and when they leave, including perceptions, as well as actions. We’re interested in developing active civically intelligent citizens for the long-haul. Hence, ideally, we’d gather feedback on graduates at regular intervals; do they work for non-profits or did they start one, are they in public service or benefit corporations? Do they work with economically disadvantaged people or migrants or refugees?
While a college may reap a more prestigious ranking by concentrating on puzzle-determined “smartness” in both admissions and pedagogy, America’s democracy depends on the civic intelligence — which includes creativity, skills, compassion and many other characteristics— of all of its citizens. This broad focus, while more difficult to implement, must not be ignored in the rush to enshrine STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics — as the preeminent educational pursuit.
Are there representatives from three or so schools in North America who are willing to tackle this initial challenge?
We haven’t gone to the next step – that of developing an approach where colleges could conduct a self-evaluation that would yield valid data.
We will continue our examination of civic intelligence at Evergreen and we encourage other schools to examine theirs. The rankings, of course, aren’t intended to be permanent. They are aspirational and, with work and encouragement, the hope is that colleges and universities will become a critical backbone of social purpose, cooperation and civic intelligence that builds on their deep experience advancing the world’s knowledge and humanity.