Engaging Students in Democracy

Colleges should focus on preparing students to be citizens, but there's little evidence many have integrated such education into their programs and courses, write Andrew J. Seligsohn and Thomas Erhlich.

July 23, 2018

PS: Political Science and Politics, the American Political Science Association journal, recently published a paper on the results of a project in which more than 500 students in courses at 23 colleges and universities not only learned about American politics, they also engaged actively in observing 2016 election-day lines at polling places. The co-authors report that, as a result of that experience, the students were not only more knowledgeable about electoral processes, they also felt more personally engaged in politics and public policy issues.

Those findings -- that experiential learning for democracy increases both efficacy and interest in political issues -- come as no surprise to us. In the winter of 2004, one of us -- Andrew -- and his colleagues took students from Hartwick and St. Olaf Colleges to Manchester, N.H., for an experiential course on presidential primaries. The students read political science literature, volunteered with the campaign of their choice and watched the candidates give stump speeches and talk one-on-one with citizens in bowling alleys, diners and high school gyms. Professors and students met for discussions of what the students were seeing and doing and how it all connected with the materials they were studying.

Then the team examined the impact of the course on the students -- both immediately and one year later. They found that, compared with a control group, those students were significantly more politically engaged than their peers -- reading news sources regularly, talking about politics and participating actively in democratic processes. They also found that they were more likely to see careers in public service as a likely part of their future.

A few years later, the other of us -- Tom -- and his co-authors were researching and writing their book, Educating for Democracy: Preparing Undergraduates for Responsible Political Engagement. They examined 20 programs and courses, ranging from a two-year program to individual courses, that all had the goal of education for political engagement -- although the approaches and pedagogies they choose were different. Through extensive surveys and focus groups, they found that all 20 had significant and positive effects on students in terms of their knowledge, skills and attributes to be politically engaged.

Crucially, those studies shared a common finding about the content of students’ political views. While the academic experiences prompted students to become more engaged with political issues, those experiences did not alter the ideological positions of the students from conservative to liberal or vice versa. Students left these courses with the same values they brought to them -- and with a much clearer sense of why and how to put those values into practice.

Such findings are consistent with a vast body of research developed over more than three decades on service learning and other high-impact practices. The result of the thoughtful integration of experiential learning with traditional academic activities is that students learn more and care more. When students are well prepared in advance, are then put in real-world contexts or well-designed simulations, followed up by opportunities to analyze and reflect on what they did, saw and heard, the result is students who are motivated and prepared to take up their responsibilities as citizens.

We all see the deep challenges facing our democracy. Confidence in institutions is at historic lows. Civility among citizens and public officials has broken down, rendering thoughtful discussion of public-policy issues nearly impossible. Fictional stories masquerading as genuine news trick substantial portions of the citizenry and distort public debate. When you think about what democracy in the United States looks like to a traditional first-year student entering college this coming fall -- born in 2000 and politically aware only recently -- you understand how cynicism about democracy’s value could seem quite sensible. A recent study found that less than one-third of millennials consider it essential to live in a democracy.

In that context, it is clear that colleges and universities must focus on equipping students with the capacities necessary for effective engagement in democracy. Yet, more than 10 years after our studies and others demonstrated the value of experiential learning for political engagement, there is little evidence that most higher education institutions and individual faculty members have integrated education for democracy into their programs and courses.

That must change -- which is why Campus Compact, a national coalition of 1,000 colleges and universities committed to the public purposes of higher education, is launching a major initiative called Education for Democracy. Our goal is to establish an expectation that every student will engage in courses, programs and activities aimed at preparing them for effective participation in democracy. To that end, we call upon every college and university to identify the steps they must take to ensure democratic learning for all of their students. Education for Democracy will support those efforts.

What will Education for Democracy look like? The initiative comprises six core components:

  • Student voting matters: With a goal of increasing the proportion of college students who vote in local, state, and national elections;
  • Democracy in principle and practice: With a goal of increasing student understanding of the underpinnings of democracy and the workings of democratic institutions;
  • Deliberation for a shared future: With a goal of increasing students’ capacity to listen respectfully to the ideas of others and engage in both constructive and critical discussion of public questions;
  • Media fact and fiction: With a goal of increasing the capacity of students to distinguish reliable from unreliable political information;
  • Student leadership for democracy: With a goal of leveraging Campus Compact’s existing student fellowship program to build a network of student leaders committed to democratic renewal; and
  • Teaching for democracy: With a goal of preparing faculty and staff members to develop and execute high-quality courses and programs focused on democratic engagement.

If our democracy’s current crisis has any silver lining, it may be, as a friend suggested, that this could be “a civic Sputnik moment,” focusing our attention on the reality that democracy is not a spectator sport. It requires the thoughtful involvement of its participants. One crucial path to overcoming polarization and fostering a healthy democracy is to do a better job of preparing college and university students to be engaged citizens, guiding them to productive discourse, rather than ugly rancor.

Students are now paying attention to the need for political change in ways we have not seen for years. That gives the rest of us not only an opportunity but also, in fact, an obligation to seize this moment and help our students build the knowledge and skills they need to shape a brighter future for American democracy.

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Andrew J. Seligsohn is president of Campus Compact. Thomas Ehrlich is president emeritus of Indiana University and former board chair of Campus Compact.

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