Educating for Democracy: Preparing Undergraduates for
Responsible Political Engagement
Anne Colby, Elizabeth Beaumont, Thomas Ehrlich, and Josh Corngold
San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2007
The 2008 presidential primaries have captured the imagination of young voters turning out in record numbers to participate in the elections. As the February 2008 cover of Time magazine portrays, multicultural young voters are re-engaging in elections with conviction and a belief that their vote will "make a difference." Young voters "care again," Time declares. Red and blue states and counties are steeped in the vibrant energy of youth interest and participation in electoral politics.
The pollsters and pundits now have a wide open playing field to analyze and explain this swelling youth interest in voting after nearly three decades of declining political participation. In 1993, the Kettering Foundation published the results of a national study to better understand college students' political disengagement. Extensive focus groups with students on campuses around the country indicated that "most college students believe that politics is not about solving problems; rather, ... students saw politics as individualistic, divisive, negative, and often counterproductive to acting on the ills of society" (Longo & Meyer, 2006, p. 2). Two decades of research and policy analysis bring much-needed visibility and understanding to the political disengagement of young adults. Many studies found that "among the greatest dangers for American democracy was that politics was becoming a spectator sport, an activity that relegates citizens to the sidelines" (Longo & Meyer, p.2).
Punctuating these findings, a recent report, Millennials Talk Politics (Kiesa et al., 2007), presents a study of college students that draws upon a representative sample of 386 undergraduates who participated in 47 focus groups on 12 campuses nationwide. The study concludes that while today's college students volunteer in unprecedented numbers and are deeply concerned about social issues, millennials (those born in the 1980s) shy away from "formal politics" and dislike the "spin and polarized debates." Instead, they seek authenticity for discussing public issues. The study recommends that institutions of higher education provide students with opportunities for civic and political participation and space for deliberation on public issues. Longo and Meyer (2006), in their literature review of college students' participation in politics, conclude that what is needed is a "more robust understanding of the emerging movement among college students to define an alternative politics that is more participatory, inclusive, open, creative, and deliberative ..." (p. 3).
John Dewey (1916, 1927) provides deep insights into this interplay between how college students might be educated to participate in politics and how democracy itself becomes the means for this participation. Almost a century ago, he reminded us that since democracy is always-in-the making, the give and take between politics and the citizenry is an important dynamic on which education must focus. Education, for Dewey, is critical to the development of political imagination that nurtures democracy. In The Public and its Problems, Dewey (1927) stresses the importance of discussion, consultation, persuasion, and debate to encourage a robust decision-making process that democracy demands. It is via these processes--albeit slow ones--that public awareness of problems can be extended and deepened (p. 364).
Democracy as a social mode of living requires not only that the public comes to an agreement over attaining desirable goals but also collectively inquires into what the desirable goals are in the first place. This process of arriving at a common understanding is not simply about presenting one's individual self-interest and holding on to it; rather it is about developing common interests through communication and deliberation. …