An Agentic Approach to Democratic Engagement in Higher Education

Craig Berger is UMBC’s Coordinator of Student Life for Campus and Civic Engagement

Craig Berger--SquareSocial science measures our choices and interactions, but it also subtly constrains our assumptions about what’s possible for ourselves and our communities. As Peter Levine explained in a recent blog post, invoking Hannah Arendt’s writings on revolution and the human condition, this happens in two ways.

First, by focusing retrospectively on explaining who has acted and why, social science makes history seem determined and scripted. We imagine historical figures (and, by extension, ourselves) as going through the motions, simply doing what was already destined to occur. Arendt argues that in our de-emphasizing the doubts, anxieties, and messiness of the real people connected with these events, we erase freedom and bury any empowerment and humanity those moments hold. That we view society as a fixed, permanent world that is unable to be influenced (short of a revolution) is the most harmful consequence of simplifying our past. Arendt believes that the way we study the past keeps us from adopting a more liberating perspective on our world, one that allows us to see our environments as accessible and moldable.

Additionally, social science often points to massive societal structures and systems (e.g., capitalism) that determine our everyday life and will shape our lives indefinitely, until other massive structures and systems replace them. Imagine how different it would be to examine our circumstances with what Levine calls the “agentic” perspective, which views our world as moldable and sees institutions in our lives (government, corporations, organizations, education) as fluid, able to be transformed without replacing the entire system (after all, as Levine notes, these institutions are products of human agency themselves).

The deterministic social science orientation is ubiquitous in higher education. Even universities committed to preparing students for democratic engagement often subtly communicate a sense of our past and physical/cultural surroundings as static and untouchable, whether by unintentionally or unthinkingly excluding students from campus planning conversations or neglecting to share the stories behind the naming of noteworthy campus landmarks or the events that birthed campus traditions. Experiencing our past and our physical/cultural surroundings as fixed leads us to view ourselves as consumers and robots controlled by macrolevel dynamics and structures.

How would higher education look if it adopted an agentic approach to its work? How might students’ experiences change, and what might it be like to work in this new environment? Here are some things colleges and universities taking an agentic approach to education would do:

  • Integrate responsibility for civic learning and democratic engagement across the institution: Universities would diffuse the responsibility for civic learning and democratic engagement work across every divisional and departmental boundary rather than marginalize it by assigning the work to a particular center, institute, or office. Each discipline, and the institution’s activities, symbols, and cultural practices would reflect its commitment to democratic engagement and learning. All learning would be civic learning; all engagement would be democratic engagement.
  • Diminish functional divides among students, staff, faculty, and administrators: Members of the university community would view each other as genuine partners with different experiences and perspectives, capable of engaging in innovative, transformative work. Students would view faculty, staff, and administrators as real people with their own unique experiences, passions, and struggles. Faculty, staff, and administrators would experience students as uniquely talented adults with unlimited potential whose education should encompass working with others in an unscripted fashion to improve their campus and community. Universities would redefine “shared governance,” with as much of the business as possible being shared by members of the campus community who commit to each other as well as to the work of co-creating the university.
  • Transform leadership education and development: Universities would challenge students to free their imaginations and re-conceptualize institutions as human-created and open to change. Instead of adopting the mainstream social science view of the world (viewing public problems as byproducts of root causes and systems, and that the latter that must be vanquished to make any meaningful progress) as we often do in service-learning work and alternative break service trips, students would learn how to work with campus and community stakeholders to determine which aspects of the problem could be transformed and embark on relationship-building and strategic planning in pursuit of that change. This approach would emphasize continually improving environments and cultures, thereby creating new opportunities and frontiers for positive change.
  • Reconceptualize assessment: The quantity and the nature of assessment would change. Students would experience learning with others and, as a part of this learning environment, would feel free to blaze trails of inquiry that do not exist at the outset. Assessment efforts–and ultimately, professional and academic accountability–would be more flexible, accommodating and encouraging civic creativity. Staff and faculty would constantly examine how learning outcomes are presented to students (if at all) to avoid contaminating and/or reducing the power of the learning experience, and to preserve students’ agency.

If universities are genuinely committed to preparing students for democratic engagement, they must examine what messages their cultural practices and campus traditions transmit to students and other members of the university community regarding their agency. Taking an agentic approach to our work in higher education would encourage students to view themselves as co-creators of the campus and authors of their own experiences.

What do you think? What other changes can you imagine consistent with the agentic approach, and are they worth pursuing?

Contact the author, Craig Berger, at