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Ethos Matters: Inspiring Students as Democracy's Co-Creators

September 29, 2016 David Hoffman University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC)

CIVIC ETHOS governing campus life
The infusion of democratic values into the customs and habits of everyday practices, structures, and interactions; the defining character of the institution and those in it that emphasizes open-mindedness, civility, the worth of each person, ethical behaviors, and concern for the well-being of others; a spirit of public-mindedness that influences the goals of the institution and its engagement with local and global communities. (A Crucible Moment, 2012, p.15)

My university, University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), celebrated its 50th anniversary this month, and our collective pilgrimage to the wells of institutional memory yielded plenty of insights about our earliest days. For an educator like me interested in orienting students to lives of deep engagement in their communities and democracy, it was an inspiring trip with provocative implications.

In UMBC’s earliest years, the sense of civic possibility and collective agency was palpable on campus. The original faculty members had been recruited with the promise that they would have the chance to participate in building a new institution. Students steeped in a climate of social upheaval in Baltimore and in American society arrived with the expectation that they would participate in the decisions affecting their lives. Campus administrators invited students to assume responsibility for programs and participate in university governance because they believed it was the right thing to do. The absence of established traditions encouraged a kind of self-reliance that fueled creativity. In the program for the first commencement ceremony in spring 1970, senior Diane Juknelis reflected, “The present class of graduates is the first in a long line of innovators who are not to be considered products of UMBC, but rather constant producers of all that gives it character and quality.” 

The sense of civic agency that vibrates through Juknelis’s words hints at the way her education embodied the educational philosopher John Dewey’s insight that students learn from their entire environment, not just through the formal curriculum. She seems to have internalized some of the spirit that prevailed in those days at UMBC and in U.S. public life.

It is sobering to consider that today’s students are similarly internalizing the spirit of our times.

Most of them have lived their entire lives in what arguably has been a decades-long period of civic decline characterized by gridlock, diminished trust, and eroding civility from the highest levels of government to ordinary neighborhoods. Rather than summoning us to action, our social divisions and challenges—the clash of worldviews in a national election, the persistence of racial bias in our institutions, the potentially catastrophic transformation of our global climate—seem to deepen our sense of inefficacy and paralysis. The revolution in our information technology has enabled us to communicate and collaborate as never before, but also has encouraged us to customize our experiences in ways that isolate us from people who do not share our preconceptions.

Few of us would argue that most citizens feel much confidence that they can participate meaningfully in shaping our collective destiny. A Crucible Moment, the widely influential report of the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement published in January, 2012, featured a warning from Kettering Foundation president David Mathews that we were on the verge of becoming a “citizenless democracy,” (p. 17 ) because trends in public life had pushed ordinary people to the sidelines and made it harder for us to work together to solve problems. Five years later, the situation seems even more vexing.

Important aspects of the UMBC environment have changed as well. The students who arrived this semester, having been immersed in our national culture of civic distress, are navigating a campus that appears much more complete than the one Diane Juknelis experienced 50 years ago. In place of haphazard dirt paths and unfinished structures, they see brick, concrete, and clean lines. It would be understandable if students initially took what they found as given and beyond their capacity to shape.

As a Student Affairs educator, I want to counter that perception and help students transcend the limitations of contemporary public life. I want them to develop a strong sense of their campus and world as fluid and changeable, and of themselves as potential agents of transformation. Furthermore, I want to be able to do this using the vehicles most readily available to me, including programs and activities.

My most successful effort in this vein has been STRiVE, a five-day, off-campus civic leadership program for undergraduates that I developed and administer with colleagues. By STRiVE’s final night, I often find myself in a state approaching euphoria. As I sit with a group of participants and we reflect on the journey of the previous few days, I soak in their confidence and hope. In those moments, the students know that they have the capacity to work across difference to enact their purposes together. The profound feeling of community among people who had only recently been strangers hints at civic possibilities to be realized back home.

Yet Dewey’s insight that students learn from their entire environment illuminates the peril of relying on vehicles like STRiVE alone. If students have empowering experiences in programs my colleagues and I control, but find themselves otherwise immersed in cultures that cast them as mere customers, voters in periodic elections, or users of resources created for them by others, they are likely to internalize the totality of the implicit lesson: that they can experience power and agency only within the boundaries of experiences designed for that purpose, and only when helped along by professionals like me. It’s a concern reflected in A Crucible Moment’s call for commitments to civic learning and democratic engagement to be integrated across institutions, not just in isolated departments and programs. Ethos matters.

We also need to pay attention to the environments we create within our programs, so that our intentionality as designers does not negate the agency of the participants. I learned a valuable lesson a few years ago when I conducted in-depth, open-ended interviews with several STRiVE participants. While they were deeply enthusiastic about the STRiVE experience, not one of them mentioned having been particularly helped or inspired by the components I had designed to build their efficacy as initiators and producers of social change.  Instead, they spoke passionately about how the relationships they established with peers and staff at STRiVE in unscripted moments had affirmed, liberated and transformed them. Immersed in an environment painstakingly developed to be fluid and open, in which they had felt truly seen and heard, working with people who cared enough about their community to be willing to brace ambiguity and resistance together, they had begun to feel themselves truly capable of changing their world.

At UMBC, colleagues and students across the institution have been collaborating to infuse that spirit of civic agency in all that we do, including courses, programs, communications and cultural practices. Through an organizing process that has connected people across traditional role boundaries, we have embraced another of Dewey’s ideas: that democracy is not merely a form of government but a way of life that “must be enacted anew in every generation, in every year and day, in the living relations of person to person in all social forms and institutions” (“Education and Social Change,” 1937, p. 473-474). We have helped to sustain and enlarge a culture characterized by mutuality and reciprocity in our relationships on campus and beyond, in which people truly see and respect each other, and in which innovation and collective action are manifestly possible.

In this work, our collective, institutional past has been among our greatest resources. We have no shortage of stories embodying UMBC’s ethos of deep engagement in living democracy. A key to surfacing and making meaning of those stories has been to look beyond the narrow constraints and definitions of contemporary civic life: beyond the volunteerism programs and voter registration campaigns. We have located and communicated our culture in stories like those shared at our 50th anniversary celebration: accounts of improvisation, collaboration across difference, and authentic respect for the potential of every person to contribute as a “constant producer[…] of all that gives [our communities] character and quality.” 

Following our weekend of anniversary celebrations, sophomore Gerardo Herrera-Cortes posted (to Facebook): “This is a place of learning, engagement, and development; of nurtur[ing], civility, and citizenship; a place of founders, agents, and pioneers; and finally, a place of grit and greatness. This is my UMBC, your UMBC, and our UMBC.” The ethos persists, and with it, the hope that all of us together can heal our democracy and build a future in which we all can thrive.

How are you and your campus cultivating a campus ethos of civic learning and democratic engagement?  Share your thoughts, resources, and concerns with us at the annual Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement (CLDE) Meeting in Baltimore, Md. from June 7-10, 2017. 

For more information on how David and his colleagues are continuing to cultivate a campus CLDE ethos, see David’s previous blog post on Describing Transformative Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement Practices (2015).


Dewey, J. (1937). Education and social change.” Bulletin of the American Association of University Professors 23, 6, 472–4. 

The first commencement exercises of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (1970). University Publications collection. Special Collections, University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement (2012). A crucible moment: College learning and democracy’s future. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.