Reframing and Reclaiming Democracy: Higher Education's Challenge

By Thomas, Nancy L. | Peer Review, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Reframing and Reclaiming Democracy: Higher Education's Challenge


Thomas, Nancy L., Peer Review


At the end of May 2008, students, civic leaders, and faculty and staff in leadership studies and development from universities across the country came together for a national symposium on civic leadership education and democracy. These talented students were already passionate activists, organizers, and volunteers working to address a broad range of issues affecting their local communities. The group convened to discuss the scope and content of successful leadership education programs. While the group expressed some concern over "getting to scale" and involving more than "the usual suspects" on campuses, it was clear that many American colleges and universities have established some promising programs to educate the next generation of activists and organizers.

At the same time, there was little discussion about the normative values driving this work and a broader understanding of why students pursue education and experiences in civic leadership. Although the term democracy was in the title of the symposium, it was only toward the end of the two-day meeting that one student questioned the relevance of democracy to this work, and when she did, other students in the room nodded in agreement. One explained:

I am uncomfortable with the suggestion that we are doing this work to strengthen democracy. To me, democracy means partisanship, special interests, and corruption. I am not inspired to do this work as a way to advance democracy.

In some e-mail exchanges that followed, the students offered more explanation. Democracy is a theory and an idea that every person gets an equal and valued vote. In reality, elected officials are swayed by "money and large corporations" rather than citizen interests and needs. One said, "The term democracy makes me cringe."

It may be troubling, but it should not be surprising, that students find democracy uninspiring if not ignoble. This generation has witnessed policymaking that is characterized by point-counterpoint exchanges among distant political elites. Matters of public interest are reduced by the media to incomplete or misleading information, often about the divisions between Americans based on political party, ideology, race, gender, class, geography, and religious beliefs, rather than about the issues' merits.

The net result is a divided public. Despite unprecedented levels of engagement during this presidential primary season, researchers William Galston and Piertro Nivola reported in the New York Times (May 11, 2008) the results of a comprehensive study of the nations polarization. They concluded that not only are ideological differences between the political parties growing but they have become "embedded in American society."

Nor is it clear that Americans are paying close attention. Fewer than half of the eligible voters actually vote. In response to a survey question, "Have you ever worked together informally with someone or some group to solve a problem in the community where you live?" only 20 percent of adults answered yes. In an annual survey that measures lifestyles, participants were asked whether they have worked on a community project in the preceding year. In 1975, 43 percent responded yes. In 2005, only 27 percent responded yes, and the responses in between show a steady decline. There are other surveys that measure civic involvement, and they demonstrate low levels in all indicators: membership in at least one group (around 25 percent); volunteerism (around 34 percent); protest (around 8 percent); contacting a newspaper (around 10 percent); donating to a political candidate ( 15 percent); raising money for a charity (27 percent) (Levine 2007, 58). In October 2007, the Civic Health Index, compiled by the National Conference on Citizenship, released its most recent findings. The Civic Health Index examines forty indicators of civic participation, such as voting, volunteering, membership in civic clubs and organizations, public giving, attending community meetings, and staying informed. …

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