Teaching civic engagement

“Democracy needs to be born anew every generation, and education is the midwife.”

As we start a new school year amid protests and serious questions about the state of our democracy, this sentiment expressed by John Dewey in 1916 holds particular poignancy. It reflects growing urgency to consider how, in our rush toward other goals, policymakers and educators may be ignoring the need to continually invest in the foundations of democracy.

The seeming unending roller coaster of events in the last year has ignited fierce debates about the aims of American democracy and unveiled deep divisions within the citizenry. These divisions are exacerbated by the reality that large swaths of the populace have not been regularly participating in core activities intrinsic to democracies such as voting, volunteering, and attending public meetings, or they have just spun their wheels in online anger and resentment. The result is a political situation in which a large portion of “the people” is uninvolved or unable to productively discuss and resolve political differences. A thriving democracy requires an informed and peacefully engaged citizenry, and such citizenship knowledge and skills must be learned. Institutions of higher education have an essential role to play in providing an education in effective civic and political engagement, and these efforts must extend campus-wide and across all disciplines.

Some educators at Maryland colleges and universities have worked hard to create a variety of civic engagement learning opportunities and integrated evidence-based experiential learning into their coursework to enhance students’ political knowledge, equip them with democratic citizenship skills, foster the confidence to participate in the political process, and encourage strengthened commitments to core democratic values. But to prepare the next generation of citizens, this effort needs faculty from all disciplines — the social sciences, the humanities and those in the science, engineering and health fields — at all Maryland colleges and universities.

Salisbury University and Towson University, for example, have created innovative faculty training programs to offer models of how to build students’ civic skills and knowledge without sacrificing core content; rather, evidence demonstrates that a civic engagement component enhances traditional content learning. Towson University also offers an interdisciplinary freshmen learning community that connects knowledge about democracy with practicing democracy both inside and outside of the classroom. This case exemplifies that such civic learning opportunities need not occur solely in academic majors. Instead, civic engagement education can and should extend to campus-wide event planning, extra-curricular and residence life, and faculty professional development.

As microcosms of democratic societies, campuses that foster a climate for political learning and engagement are well-positioned to transform large numbers of students into committed, peaceful political actors. Campuses where this mindset prevails intentionally work to build cohesive relationships between faculty and students, offer meaningful opportunities for students to play roles in campus decision-making regardless of their socio-economic backgrounds and embed political discourse throughout the college experience — discourse that values peaceful free expression and dissenting viewpoints, whether that speech takes place in the classroom or in designated free speech zones. They also better prepare our students for lives as citizen-doctors, citizen-engineers and citizen-business owners. Regardless of a student’s major, they need the skills and experience to connect their content knowledge with the world in which they will work and live, and we need to invest resources in developing this generation of citizens.

Despite some uninformed claims, teaching students to be active and engaged citizens is not a partisan endeavor but is grounded in research and well-tested practices. Civic engagement is, in principle, entirely neutral; we want students to vote and peacefully participate in policy-making, community groups, and organizations whether they are Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives. The only bias is in favor of democracy.

At the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin famously described the resulting governmental system as “a republic, if you can keep it.” Maryland policymakers and educators at all levels and in all disciplines are responsible for working to help us keep our republic alive. Given the current political climate, the time ahead will likely resemble the turbulence and activism of the 1960s. We call upon all Maryland campuses to rise to the challenge and for the public and policymakers to support and value the important work of teaching the knowledge and skills for American democratic citizenship in post-2016 America.

Alison McCartney (amccartney@towson.edu) is a professor of political science and faculty director of the Honors College at Towson University. Elizabeth Matto is an associate professor at the Eagleton Institute of Politics within Rutgers University. They are are co-editors — along with Elizabeth Bennion of Indiana University, and d Dick Simpson ot the University of Illinois at Chicago — of “Teaching Civic Engagement Across the Disciplines,” published by the American Political Science Association this year.

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