Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
February 25, 2024

Civic engagement: for the betterment of Baltimore

By Patrice Hutton | October 12, 2006

After the Oct. 5 edition of the News-Letter in which two page-one articles detailed external questioning of both the civic literacy and involvement of Hopkins students, it's time that we, the University's student populous, reevaluate the role that our University plays in both the local and global communities.

I remember walking along Charles Street as a freshman looking up in awe at banners reading "Johns Hopkins Campaign: Knowledge for the World," thinking that surely this meant that Hopkins was fixing Baltimore's public schools or providing African villages with educational materials about AIDS. I was disheartened to learn that the title of this campaign -- operating with the motto "What Johns Hopkins achieves, it gives to the world" -- was a disguise for a typical endowment-building fundraiser.

As a contrast to U.S. News & World Report's college rankings, The Washington Monthly produces "The Other College Rankings" judging colleges based on their contribution to national service. The publication assesses what colleges are doing for the country and what the country needs from them. They examine each university's role as an engine of social mobility, their production of "academic minds and scientific research that advance knowledge and drive economic growth" and how well they "inculcate and encourage an ethic of service." Hopkins ranked 11th, likely on the strength of the University's research focus.

There is no doubt that Hopkins is making substantial contributions to the world. From discoveries made at the Kimmel Cancer Center to the Center for Social Concern's very own Tutorial Project, the people of JHU are making a difference. However, as undergraduates who are incredibly academically and professionally oriented -- with tidy college lives centered around the Gilman quad, lab work, Faulkner novels and Lehman Brothers information sessions -- we often forget that the school is nestled in a city known for its startling social statistics. We participate in a breadth of meaningful local community service activities, from mentoring juvenile offenders to tutoring refugee youth; however, what is lacking is a service-learning program, which links academic work to community involvement.

I'm not calling for a University-wide service requirement, because the work that would come out of such a mandate would likely be contrived, superficial and seen as burdensome. Rather, what is needed is an institution-wide shift in attitude toward the city of Baltimore.

Ralph Nader, in his Sept. 28 speech at Shriver Hall, called upon Hopkins to open an institute for the study of civics. As students, let's challenge the administration to heed his words and improve our failing grade in civics education. Rather than show the world that we're capable of answering multiple-choice questions about presidents, let's demonstrate the true meaning of "civic engagement." Hopkins prides itself on its strength in undergraduate research. Now we should take this quest for knowledge further and build programs that act upon this research to provide remedies for Baltimore's problems at the causal level.

Between our existing Institute for Policy Studiesand Urban Health Institute, Hopkins is certainly on its way to participating in the betterment of Baltimore. However what is severely lacking is a means for undergraduates to play a tangible and sustainable role in addressing Baltimore's social ills beyond simply joining hit-or-miss volunteering.

A positive step would be for Hopkins to develop an institute for civics that calls upon undergraduates and graduates alike to come together and identify issues of concern, devise solutions and then put these solutions into action. A civics institute would not be merely interdisciplinary, but rather all-encompassing: Every student from every program of studies could work with faculty to address social issues falling under their realm of academic expertise. Development of such an institute would be an inspired move for the University and would demonstrate that Johns Hopkins really does transfer its achievements to the world -- starting locally.

We're allotted a brief four years here in the unique position of being both Hopkins students and residents of Baltimore. Let's use our time as students to press the administration to be more attentive to the needs of our city; let's be the group of students who demand that their University use its continuing quest for knowledge to make a positive impact on its home city.

Patrice Hutton has volunteered for several Baltimore City public school programs. She is a junior Writing Seminars major from Wichita, Ks.


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