Civic Identity: Locating Self in Community
By L. Lee Knefelkamp, professor of education
and psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University,
and senior scholar at AAC&U
Before being nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature
and lauded for his tireless work for peace, Nikos Kazantzakis
was a young student struggling with his identity. Kazantzakis
was an ethnic minority in his own land, the child of
a military father and an intellectual and musical mother.
As a Cretan, he identified with the concepts of being
colonized, of existing in exile, of living in constant
diaspora. He struggled with multiple issues, wondering
which political system deserved his allegiance, how
he could reconcile the struggle for human rights with
injustices perpetrated at the direction of government,
and how he could explore and commit himself to one religious
tradition. He struggled with issues of sexuality and
relationships. But his two largest struggles were these:
how to discover a passionate purpose and role in life,
and how to reconcile the multiple aspects of his own
identity into a harmonious whole.
Kazantzakis searched for the answers to these questions
in many places. One summer he went to work in his uncle’s
lignite mine. While there, he encountered the limitations
of poverty, the stifling role gender identity played
in the island communities, and a sense of both isolation
and possibility. He worked, had new and unforeseen experiences,
and reflected on his life and its meaning. Finally,
he discovered a reconciling purpose, a sense of identity
resolution. “I too,” he writes, “can
be a warrior, only my soldiers will be the twenty-six
letters of the alphabet!” (The Saviors of
Inspired by this insight, Kazantzakis wrote passionately
about ethnic strife in his homeland and worked to create
a rebirth of democracy in Crete, all while crafting
several beloved novels, including The Fratricides,
The Last Temptation of Christ, and Zorba the
Greek. Once a college student in search of himself,
Kazantzakis became one of the leading authors and activists
of the twentieth century. He had not just discovered
a career. He had discovered a larger role in the world.
Discovering Civic Identity
Nikos Kazantzakis claimed his identity as an activist
and saw writing as a means to enable that identity.
He had learned that not claiming that identity would
have been tantamount to betraying himself. He had discovered
what Katie Cannon, author of Black Womanist Ethics,
calls us all to discover: how to discern the moral and
civic obligations of our time and find a way to act
on those obligations (1988). Cannon suggests that such
action is our ethical obligation. She sees the identity
affirmation that develops through action as larger than
the work through which we enact it.
Through initiatives like American Commitments, Shared
Futures, Greater Expectations, Core Commitments, and
Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP),
AAC&U has called us to understand the nature of
civic identity. These initiatives position civic identity
as an identity status in its own right—one that
can become as integral to individual identity as race,
ethnicity, gender, nationality, or any other deeply
claimed aspect of self. We at AAC&U have strongly
asserted that the development of an ethical civic identity
should be one of the outcomes of a liberal education.
Our emphasis has not been misplaced. As Colby and Damon
have told us, the college years represent a key opportunity
for the development of civic identity, particularly
for traditionally aged 18- to 22-year-old students (1992).
During childhood, an outside authority defines the moral
domain, with adults mediating between what is right
and wrong. The adolescent then encounters multiple perspectives
and begins to develop a sense of a moral compass. The
college student, armed with increased cognitive complexity,
is potentially able to develop what James Rest has called
the “four components of moral identity”:
moral sensitivity, judgment, motivation, and character
(1994). This richer understanding should lead to an
adulthood in which the individual comes to see moral
action as an integral part of who he or she is, and
understands that to not act morally is to betray the
Thus college can be a crucial shaping environment for
the development of moral identity and civic identity—if
educational opportunities deliberatively engage the
student in accordance with his or her developmental
readiness. We must be mindful of this need as we work
to create more purposeful, deliberate, and connected
educational experiences for our students.
Essential Characteristics of Civic Identity
If civic identity is a major identity status, it must
have some essential characteristics:
1) Civic identity does not develop in isolation. It
develops over time through engagement with others who bring a wide variety of interpretations, life experiences,
and characteristics to any discussion of moral dilemmas.
It develops in the context of engaging the real social,
political, and economic structures within any given
society or culture. Thus the development of civic identity
in our students is truly community work.
2) Civic identity is not the same as, but is deeply
connected to, complex intellectual and ethical development.
While complex thought does not guarantee positive moral
action, moral discernment is an act of cognitive complexity.
Civic actions, like moral actions, arise in the face
of complex alternatives. Thus the work of helping students
become more intellectually complex expands their capacity
to think and act as citizens.
3) Civic identity is a holistic practice.
It requires an integration of critical thinking and
the capacity for empathy. It challenges us to identify
with others who may be significantly different from
ourselves while acting consistently in the face of unexpected
circumstances. By developing an active, integrated civic
identity, individuals begin to find wholeness and psychological
balance within themselves and with others in the world.
4) Civic identity becomes a deliberately chosen
and repeatedly enacted aspect of the self. Like
any other identity status, civic identity requires active
reflection, experimentation, and what Dewey called “moral
rehearsal” (Fesmire 2003). Rehearsal for civic
engagement requires multiple experiences and opportunities
for learning. These experiences should include time
to reflect with others, active discussion about choices
and their possible consequences, and imaginative exercises
that help students commit to a better and more just
Individuals with a mature sense of civic identity are
fully engaged, fully human citizens of their communities.
They seek knowledge of both historical and contemporary
conditions. They apply this knowledge using the skills
and competencies they have developed, working independently
and interdependently on whatever challenges they face.
They approach these challenges with a sense of discernment,
responsibility, and justice seeking. They are both idealistic
and realistic, patient and persistent, committed to
thoughtful engagement and aware that others may engage
differently. They see their role in life as contributing
to the long-term greater good. And perhaps most importantly,
they have the courage to act.
Our Unfinished Work
Recent data collected as part of AAC&U’s
Core Commitments initiative indicate that colleges and
universities endorse the elements of what I have described
above. We want our students to develop what we at AAC&U
have called “civic identity,” and we believe
that this development should be an essential outcome
of a liberal education. Yet the data also reveals a
gap between the ideal and the real: educators want to
foster civic growth, but we aren’t necessarily
successful in doing so. If we are truly committed to
fostering civic identity in our students, we must ask
ourselves some difficult questions about how we approach
the educational enterprise. We cannot help students
become integrated and whole if our curricula, campus
activities, and civic programs remain unconnected, unstructured,
Nevertheless, we are not without frameworks for fostering
civic growth, and AAC&U laid out some of these in
its recent report, College Learning for the New
Global Century. Students who develop knowledge
of history, teamwork and problem-solving skills, civic
knowledge and engagement, intercultural knowledge and
competence, ethical reasoning and action, and the ability
to synthesize and act purposefully are well on their
way toward developing civic identity. There are multiple
steps colleges and universities can take to foster this
growth. Students need to live and study in environments
that help them engage “the big questions”
and explore their own purpose and identity. Students
need to recognize how their course of study connects
them to the civic and cultural life around them. Students
need to see that we are all members of one community
and that our individual work is interconnected with
the work of others. And students need to witness the
academy’s ongoing commitment to creating a more
This issue of Diversity & Democracy calls
us to contemplate community’s role in the task
of educating students to find their civic selves. As
Kazantzakis wrote to a dear “companion in life”:
“If you leave me to myself alone, I shall try
to succeed alone. But if we try it together, the task
will not be easier, but it will be deeper and richer”
(H. Kazantzakis 1989). As educators, we should follow
Kazantzakis’s lead to richer collaborations and
deeper learning experiences, for our students, ourselves,
and our world.
Association of American Colleges and Universities.
2007. College learning for the new global century.
Cannon, K. G. 1988. Black womanist ethics.
Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press.
Colby, A., and W. Damon. 1992. Some do care: Contemporary
lives of moral commitment. New York: The Free Press.
Fesmire, S. 2003. John Dewey and the moral imagination.
Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Kazantzakis, H. 1989. Nikos Kazantzakis: A biography.
Simon and Schuster.
Kazantzakis, N. 1969. The fratricides. New
York: Simon and Schuster.
—. 1998. The last temptation of Christ.
New York: Simon and Schuster.
—. 1969. The saviors of God. New York:
Simon and Schuster.
—. 1971. Zorba the Greek. New York:
Simon and Schuster.
Rest, J. and D. Narvaez. 1994. Moral development
in the professions. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum
Editor’s note: Lee Knefelkamp
spoke about civic identity at AAC&U’s October
2007 meeting, “Civic Learning at the Intersections.”
To download a podcast of her speech, visit www.aacu.org/Podcast/civic07_podcasts.cfm.