Political Engagement 101

Specific curricular approaches can move students beyond apathy and ignorance -- without necessarily changing their ideologies, new Carnegie study finds.
August 30, 2007

Survey after survey reports that American students -- while concerned about the world around them -- are apathetic about politics. Events like Katrina or Darfur spark activism and voluntarism. And to be sure, college Democrats and Republicans are good at organizing competing speakers. But voter registration (and voting), turnouts at town hall meetings and knowledge of the political process remain embarrassingly low.

Research that will be presented this week at the American Political Science Association's annual meeting, which starts today in Chicago, suggests that political engagement can be taught. In a project led by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, researchers identified a series of courses that mixed more traditional political science education with participatory politics -- not in the sense of organizing rallies for presidential candidates but with activities that go beyond formal classroom instruction.

In a course at the University of Illinois at Chicago, students study the problems facing the city, hearing from a variety of prominent political and civic leaders -- and then are assigned to pick a problem and draft a major policy proposal as if they were advising a new mayor. A course at Providence College involves studying early texts about democratic theory and then organizing a classroom into perfectly democratic and purely undemocratic modes of instruction. The various approaches do not fit any one model except that they have a strong participatory component. The 21 courses examined that fit this mold are at public and private institutions, and included both political science majors and students with little interest in politics (many of them taking the courses because they fulfilled a distribution requirement).

Surveys and interviews with students in the courses -- before and after -- have led to Educating for Democracy: Preparing for Responsible Political Engagement, which will be published this fall by Jossey-Bass and which will be previewed in Chicago this week. The authors are Anne Colby, a senior scholar at Carnegie; Elizabeth Beaumont, assistant professor of political science at the University of Minnesota; Thomas Ehrlich, a senior scholar at Carnegie who is the former president of Indiana University; and Josh Corngold, a research assistant at Carnegie.

Their key findings are as follows:

  • When students go through these courses, as opposed to more traditional classroom settings, they emerge with measurably increased knowledge not just of the subject matter of the courses, but of how to have a "politically engaged identity," meaning that they know how to do things like stay informed, express opinions to lawmakers, participate in the political process, etc.
  • Gains in political knowledge and in interest in political participation were the greatest from those who entered the courses with little interest in politics (many of those who were looking for a way to finish a requirement).
  • While students reported major shifts in their ideas about how politically active they wanted to be (toward more activity), they did not change their ideologies or party identifications. This finding is key, the researchers argue, in light of criticism from David Horowitz and others about alleged indoctrination in the classroom. The book argues that political engagement as encouraged by the professors studied -- many of whom have strong political views of one sort or another and some of whom express those views in the classroom -- does not turn Republicans into Democrats or vice versa.

To many of the professors whose courses were studied, the key objective isn't that their students have one view or another, but that they have some informed view and act on it. "We are at risk of raising a disengaged, non-participatory generation of students," said Richard Reitano, a professor of government at Dutchess Community College and an adjunct at Vassar College.

His course on the United Nations -- which he teaches at Vassar for students from both colleges -- was among those studied. In the course, the class prepares each spring for the national college Model United Nations, and so the program becomes something of an area studies course focused on whatever country the class will be representing. Students do in-depth research projects and then prepare for the Model UN. Not only do they learn about regions, Reitano said, but they learn about rhetoric and presenting ideas, including ideas that they don't hold. Graduates of the class are in the foreign service, serving in city governments, organizing school committees and in many other parts of civic life.

Reitano also said that he thinks there are also subtle lessons taught to the students by teaming Dutchess and Vassar students on projects. "It's important for Vassar students to understand that most people don't go to places like Vassar," he said. "The students really do learn from each other -- going both ways."

Colby, the Carnegie scholar who is one of the book's authors, said that in devising the research project, the scholars noted that colleges do a great deal to promote students' ethical development and sense of community, but relatively little on political engagement. While many colleges think about which of their courses relate to broad community issues, relatively few think about politics in that way, and they should, Colby said.

Ehrlich said that while political scientists are involved in many of the courses, the projects that are making a difference in political engagement levels go beyond research and instruction. "One of the dominant themes in political science has been the disinterested observer who doesn't get engaged precisely to maintain a degree of impartiality," he said. While there are "very important places in the academy for those skills and insights," he said that the courses studied point to another need.

By demonstrating political engagement as professors, the instructors of these courses also break through what the researchers found was one of the major obstacles for students. Colby said that many students associated political engagement strictly with running for office, something that they found unattractive. What the courses studied provided students, she said, was "a much broader way of staying involved and informed."

Another reason it is important that the classes are participatory, Ehrlich said, was to show students that being deeply engaged in political issues doesn't mean one has to be nasty or divisive. And along those lines, he stressed that the courses that work aren't just lessons in community activism, but involve a mix of formal learning and participation. "There are core dimensions to the academy in terms of the way inquiry takes place," he said. "It is based on evidence. It is based on civility. These are things that are absolutely critical and distinguish the academy from the dominant mode evident in the media and with politicians."

Along those lines, the researchers also argue that colleges should be more deliberative about whom they invite to campus as speakers. While many campus lecture committees focus on some idea of balance, the researchers question whether that alone is the best measure, or whether other qualities should get more attention. In other words, a Ward Churchill debate against Ann Coulter would satisfy those seeking to count speakers on the left and right, but will anyone learn anything?

"The 'Crossfire' approach doesn't help students as much as exposure to multiple different points of views in ways that encourage real learning," Ehrlich said. He would like to see campuses move beyond lecturers as entertainment or incitement and see more colleges assign background material prior to an outside speaker or organize post-appearance discussions. "There are techniques that can add significantly to what students learn," he said.

Colby said that it's about "moving beyond just having this outrageous person on this side and that outrageous person on that side," and rather discussions about "how do you work your way through tough issues."


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