I’ve been acquainted with the term “civic engagement” for as long as I’ve been a practicing public historian, but I must admit my ignorance as to what exactly the term means. I am not the only public historian dealing with this confusion. Here is what Mary Rizzo of the New Jersey Council for the Humanities and Rutgers University says about “civic engagement”:
It’s the Maltese falcon of the public humanities–the stuff dreams of made of, but no one really knows what it is. Everybody claims to be doing civic engagement, from the Ivy League to the state school, from the ballet to the ball club, from the mustiest archive to the quaintest house museum, but nobody ever defines it. Like that statue, it represents everything to everyone, a problematic state of flux.
“Civic” can mean a neighborhood, an organization, or a group of citizens within a local, state, regional, or national community. “Engagement,” however, is a vague term prone to multiple meanings and interpretations. What does it mean to “engage” with someone or something? Isn’t “engagement” simply another term for “education” and/or “awareness”? The American Academy of Arts and Sciences defines “civic engagement” as fostering “democratic decision-making” that helps produce “voters, informed consumers, and productive workers” (10). Should the core values public historians promote when they practice “civic engagement” include educational endeavors that encourage informed voting, consumerism, and productive work in society? Should the dissemination of public policy be a concern for public historians and the institutions they work for?
The floor is yours.