Academic journal article Peer Review

The Place of Political Learning in College

Academic journal article Peer Review

The Place of Political Learning in College

Article excerpt

Although preparing young people for intelligent democratic participation is undeniably important for them and for the country, this goal is not addressed in a direct and systematic way in American higher education. To be sure, higher education does improve political understanding and engagement. Virtually every study of political knowledge, interest, and participation shows a positive relationship of these variables with educational attainment. But, despite this positive effect, many college graduates are not very politically knowledgeable, sophisticated, skilled, or engaged.

Even though the proportion of the U.S. population attending college has increased dramatically in the past fifty years, according to some indicators, political knowledge and engagement have actually decreased. Delli Carpini and Keeter (1996), for example, found that from the 1940s to the 1990s, overall levels of political knowledge did not go up, while the percentage of Americans attending college more than doubled. As they put it, "Today's college graduates are roughly equivalent [in political knowledge] to the high school graduates of the 1940s." Likewise, Bennett and Bennett (2003) report that the statistical strength of the relationship between higher education and political knowledge and participation has weakened in recent years. They found, for example, that exposure to higher education had a weaker differential effect on news consumption in 2000 than in 1972. Research my colleagues and I have conducted suggests that this trend could be reversed if higher education would address students' political learning more directly.


The relative lack of attention to college students' political learning becomes apparent only if we distinguish between political and apolitical civic engagement. In the past couple of decades, both secondary and higher education have done a remarkable job of encouraging and supporting young people's involvement with their communities through programs of extracurricular volunteer work and service learning, in which volunteer service activities are integrally connected with the substance of academic courses. This community service is often a valuable resource for nonprofit organizations, local communities, and the disadvantaged people these organizations serve. Volunteer experience helps establish a philanthropic mindset and habit in those who take part. Properly scaffolded, it can widen students' circle of identification, helping them see the disadvantaged as less alien than they otherwise would, and inspiring a desire to contribute to purposes beyond the self. But this kind of voluntarism is inadequate preparation for democratic citizenship. For that, we need explicit attention to political learning.

What counts as "political" learning? In a study of programs that support students' political development, my colleagues and I defined political engagement broadly enough to include the wide range of ways that people, especially young people, participate in American democracy, without making the definition so broad that it includes all of civic voluntarism. Political engagement, therefore, includes community and civic involvement that has a systemic dimension and various forms of engagement with public policy issues, as well as electoral politics at all levels. A key criterion is that political activities are driven by systemic-level goals, a desire to affect the shared values, practices, and policies that shape collective life.

But does this distinction between political and apolitical civic engagement make any real difference developmentally or educationally? Many educators assume that voluntarism of a nonpolitical kind will lead eventually to political engagement. In fact, civic participation can contribute to students' political learning, but there is no guarantee that this will happen.

Civic engagement sometimes exposes participants to political knowledge or imposes political demands, thus drawing them into the political realm. …

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