Artan Limani, Cassie L. Barnhardt, Jeff Lai, and Solomon Fenton-Miller
At present, few projects or initiatives in Macedonia have focused on how universities prepare students for social responsibility and citizenship.
University education is a crucial element for national peace and prosperity. It operates as a resource for economic development within a nation and region. Crucially, higher education also cultivates critical and innovative thinking – the kind of thinking necessary for activating a collective civic consciousness.
Civic consciousness is the extent to which a nation’s people possess the knowledge, commitments, and behaviors that empower them to be active, engaged, and responsible citizens. These civic attributes allow people to work and live together in mutually beneficial ways by reaching consensus about community problems, participating in and valuing democratic decision-making processes and institutions, and acquiring motivations to support community members of different backgrounds.
The Republic of North Macedonia is eager to achieve member status in the European Union. An important criterion in the accession process is providing evidence that the nation’s social institutions foster democratic participation and civic engagement among its citizens. Specifically, the Council of the European Union highlights “promoting active citizenship” as an important objective of the education system in Europe. To date, projects and strategies designed to encourage civic engagement in North Macedonia have worked to establish and institutionalize basic infrastructures of democracy – good governance, rule of law, anti-corruption and transparency, election support, and public services. Crucially, this work has addressed youth engagement with programs designed to strengthen community organizations and feelings of belongingness. Less emphasis, however, has been paid to the role of the educational system in supporting democracy, citizenship, and civic values.
Education that supports the cultivation and maintenance of democratic ideals and practices gives students the knowledge they need to be informed citizens - such as gaining an awareness of citizens’ rights and duties, national history and culture, and understanding legal and electoral systems. Democratically-orientated education should also provide students with skills for dialogue, critique, cooperation, trust-building, and conflict resolution. Civic competencies can be influenced by many things (e.g. family, identity, geography), but research consistently demonstrates that the approaches and methods teachers use in the classroom shape students’ civic learning.
While existing comparative research on civic learning has examined secondary students’ civic competencies, far less attention has been paid to civic learning in tertiary education. Even so, research has shown that higher education plays a vital role in helping young people become civic-oriented. Foundationally, educational attainment has long been linked to voting behavior; those with more years of education are more likely to participate in elections. While voting is extremely important for the maintenance of democratic values, it is just one, rather cursory, civic outcome associated with education.
At present, few projects or initiatives in the Republic of North Macedonia have focused on how universities prepare students for social responsibility and citizenship. Certainly, academic programs cultivate students’ expertise in particular content areas (engineering, public affairs, education, business, communications, and so on). However, content knowledge is only the beginning of what a country needs its people to learn. Across all areas of academic study, students require competencies related to working constructively together, acting ethically and generously with others, listening and appreciating diverse viewpoints, and understanding needs of the larger community. To encourage democratic learning, university classrooms must help students think critically, engage in meaningful discussions, and reflect on the practical implications of their course material. It is these skills that give students the capacities to solve collective problems with innovation and creativity, or to speak up when institutions or elected leaders fall short of upholding the public’s collective trust.
Data about civic participation raises questions about the well-being of democratic practices and civic engagement in the Republic of North Macedonia. According to Freedom House, North Macedonia is a country in a transitory economy and political system. Its democracy is volatile with a score of 3.75 out of 7. Main political actors and citizens have been struggling to establish a functional judiciary, fight corruption, and free state institutions from partisan influence. The country has a relatively small number of Civil Society Organizations: 10,171 in total, with 1,645 full-time employees in the sector. For context and comparison, Finland has 130,000 registered nongovernmental organizations with a total of 15 million members, whereby on average, each citizen belongs to three organizations. According to Sahlberg, civil organizations in Finland complement the educational system by providing students with opportunities to practice the social skills, problem solving, and leadership they are learning.
Today’s university students, millennials and generation Z citizens, view the world as a global village where different cultures must find ways to coexist. The Center for the Future of Democracy reports that younger generations are frustrated with democratic institutions because they have not yet delivered on issues like inequality and climate change. For young people, awareness and corresponding connectedness to the globalized world provides a steady diet of evidence of inequality and differential access to common goods. These realities can be crushing, making young people feel hesitant to pursue their dreams. Part of the solution to overcoming these frustrations is creating a university system that not only prepares students for the labor force but is also capable of inspiring students’ civic imaginations about abilities to engage in their communities cooperatively, creatively, and with empathy. These qualities are necessary to teach students to be citizens who will improve the society and make democracy a reality rather than an aspiration.
As an aspiring EU member, North Macedonia must organize the delivery of its higher education study programs in ways that foster social responsibility and civic engagement among students to ensure alignment with European civic values. To accomplish this, universities will need to independently implement innovative curricula to motivate their graduates to involve themselves in civil society: educational, religious, non-profit, and non-governmental organizations. The curriculum will need to reflect broader goals, such as sustainable development and other ideals emphasized in the twenty-first century global citizenship magna carta.
Going forward, the university curriculum needs to be focused on active citizenship, so students acquire a sense of belonging and responsibility to local and global communities. Their understanding of community must go beyond ethnic categories, emphasizing points of interconnectedness and commonalities across personal and group identity differences. In other words, a high-quality and comprehensive university curriculum is one that gives students abilities to navigate multiple communities in service of advancing peace, human rights, multiculturalism, diversity and inclusion. The very notion of community exists on a continuum of proximity from local to national to global. Courses and classes must help university students think through and plan for futures for the layered interdependencies and corresponding responsibilities to the many overlapping communities that comprise their personal and professional lives.
A forward-looking curriculum requires university leaders to be brave and visionary. They must view the goals of higher education as multifaceted, transformative, and inclusive. More specifically, embracing a civic vision for higher education requires that universities see their task as preparing minds to be local agents in the collective pursuit of eradicating global warming, poverty, violence against the disenfranchised, and halting the growth of extremism and exclusionary politics. Nowadays, doing global work may not even involve leaving a city or country of residence; rather, creating a global impact may simply mean fulfilling one’s civic duties at home to ensure local engagement across cities and countries in alignment with collective global goals. Now is the time to redesign universities to develop students’ civic competencies to promote a better future for North Macedonia and to help solve our enduring societal challenges.
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