The waiting list is long for a class at Providence College where
democracy comes to life.
Right off the bat, Prof. Richard Battistoni asks the class to
decide together how they should be graded. He routinely turns
discussion-leading over to pairs of students.
As the semester wound down recently, students presented
"artifacts" that symbolized their own views of what democracy means -
everything from a voter registration form to a box of spaghetti (in
which all the pieces are equal).
Strategies in this class and similar ones around the country aim
to equip students to make their mark in the landscape of American
democracy. But such efforts are too rare in higher education, some
in the academic world say. They are urging colleges to do more to
foster students' desire and ability to contribute in the political
realm. The classroom, they say, can be a neutral arena for students
to test their ideas and reflect on their attempts to make change in
whatever real-world project they take on.
The Political Engagement Project by the Carnegie FounA-dation for
the Advancement of Teaching in Stanford, Calif., which studied the
outcomes of 21 such courses, is at the forefront of this push.
College students these days are doing volunteer projects in
droves, but campuses don't offer enough "that is strong on educating
them for their political responsibilities ... [for] trying to make a
difference on a systemic level - that is a really important gap,"
says Anne Colby, a senior scholar at Carnegie and coauthor of a new
book emerging from the three-year project, "Educating for Democracy:
Preparing Students for Responsible Political Engagement."
Focus on engagement
The students tracked in the 21 courses, at a wide variety of
colleges, gained on scales of political motivation, understanding,
and skills. After taking these classes, they were more inclined to
read about politics, to plan future involvement in political action,
and to feel that they would be effective. Those who started without
much interest in political issues (about half) made the most gains.
In urging colleges and universities to involve students more in
political learning, it's essential that there be a neutral
environment for discussion, says Thomas Ehrlich, an "Educating for
Democracy" coauthor. "So much of the dialogue about politics that
students hear from politicians and the media is the 'Crossfire'
variety. In a college or university there's the obligation to engage
in open inquiry, with rational issues being debated based on sound
evidence ... and not just emotion."
The professors of these courses seek out diverse opinions and
minority voices. "If a student expresses some discomfort with a
point of view, we'll [ask him or her] to take that point of view and
learn how to argue with it," says Alma Blount, director of the Hart
Leadership Program at Duke University.
When Battistoni has students lead the class, at least one takes
on the role of "vibes watcher." "If students are attacking other
students instead of their ideas ... the vibes watcher can
intervene," he says. "If students are silent or not really voicing
their opinions ... the vibes watcher tries to lift those voices up."
It's not an easy job. During one discussion about gender and 19th-
century laws, the issue of rape within marriage came up. One student
said he didn't understand how it was possible for there to be rape
in marriage, and the student discussion leaders "didn't want to
honor that opinion at all," Battistoni says. After a few minutes of
heated discussion, everyone backed off. "Some faculty are reticent
to have open dialogue and discussion-based courses, because you
never know what's going to happen," he says.
Many of the courses include service-learning projects, which are
predictors of political engagement, according to a report by the
Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at the University of
California, Los Angeles. …