Did you see that story on the news last night?

By: Doug Barrera, Ph.D., Assistant Director, UCLA Center for Community Learning

Ok then. Why don’t you tell me what you would do about immigration? No, really. Tell me what you would do to address immigration concerns in this country. Or, how about Israel and Palestine? What should we do about that? What about the student debt crisis? Or climate change? Do you think there’s about to be a race war in America? How do we ensure all people access to clean water and healthy food? Or should we?

These are the types of discussions you should be having at UCLA. College is meant to be the place where you are asked your opinion of what’s happening in the world; the place where those opinions are challenged, and where you in turn challenge others’ opinions. It’s meant to be the place where your mind is expanded by listening to the experiences of others. In essence, this is where your critical thinking skills about the world around you should be developed so that you graduate not only more knowledgeable about a certain academic discipline, but prepared to be an informed and active civic participant as well. And yet, in the current culture of higher education, such inquiries are happening with lesser and lesser frequency. Rather than being asked, “What do you think?,” you’re being told, “Here’s what you should know.” After all, it’s hard to ask each student for their opinion when you’re sitting in a class with 200 of your closest friends.

But this problem goes beyond the campus. The sources of information that is put in front of us seem infinite. CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, The Daily Show, Bill Maher, Rush Limbaugh, Huffington Post, Daily Kos, TMZ, ESPN. Not to mention all those posts from your “friends” on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. (And then there’s always the old school – newspapers and news magazines – if you care to go there.) Rarely do any of the contributors to these actively seek your opinion. Instead, they want you to know what they think. And that’s a problem.

You’ve probably heard the expression:  “Never talk about politics or religion at a party.” So I once asked a student, “Do you ever talk politics in your sorority house or at a fraternity party?” She told me that she never does, and would be scared to do so. When I asked why, she commented that if she ever did, she’d probably be attacked for what she believes and told that she was wrong. And you know what? She’s right. That is what would happen. Our standard modus operandi is to tell others why they’re wrong and why they should think just like us. We’re not interested in truly listening to others, because that might, possibly, cause us to reconsider what we believe.

But that’s the point of being at a place like UCLA. You don’t come here to have your views cemented. You come here to hear – to hear the perspectives of those different from you, to discuss what you believe, and hopefully, to be asked why you believe what you believe. That’s our responsibility. As Henry Giroux asserts in Take Back Higher Education, if colleges and universities are to be the “crucial sphere for creating citizens equipped to exercise their freedoms and competent to question the basic assumptions that govern democratic political life, academics will have to…(offer) students knowledge, debate, and dialogue about pressing social issues.”

So then, what do we do with all of this information that we are inundated with? How do we make sense of it all? How do we know what to believe and what to toss aside? Perhaps more importantly, how do we change the institutional and cultural barriers that inhibit our critical analysis of the information so that we may use it to become active participants in the global community? Well, one step is to actually talk with others about what’s happening.

That is what we try to do in my Fiat Lux course, Civic Engagement 19, “Social Justice and Democratic Citizenship: Developing a Critical Consciousness.” The goal of the course is to provide a space to interrogate our assumptions and our understanding of how the world works. Through rich conversations, we reflect on the lenses through which we view the world, as well as how we put on those lenses in the first place. Our challenge is to see beyond the status quo and consider how, by being more aware, we can begin to work toward social change. The bulk of the course is spent on discussing the current events of the day – anything from immigration to education to the distribution of wealth to food deserts. The students decide the issues that we discuss, and are charged with leading those discussions – essentially, it becomes their course. And by engaging in such discussions, the hope is that students will not only become a little more informed about what’s going on in the world around them, but will be encouraged to engage their peers further.

Dr. Douglas Barrera is an assistant director with the UCLA Center for Community Learning. He oversees the Civic Engagement minor and the Astin Civic Engagement Research program for the center, teaches classes in the Civic Engagement subject area, and conducts research and assessment for the center, including an evaluation of student learning associated with service learning. He previously served as a research analyst for the UCLA Center for Community Partnerships and the Higher Education Research Institute. Before coming to UCLA, he was program director for a non-profit community organizing agency in San Diego, and taught methods of community engagement at U.C. San Diego and the University of San Diego. He is co-author of the Council of Europe publication, Advancing Democratic Practice: A Self-Assessment Guide for Higher Education, and the Higher Education Research Institute’s publication, First in My Family: A Profile of First-Generation College Students at Four-Year Institutions Since 1971. Dr. Barrera received his Ph.D. and an M.A. in Education from UCLA, and an M.A. and B.A. in History from San Diego State University.

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