To fix democracy, start with colleges

All students, regardless of subject, need meaningful opportunities to engage with the democratic process, say Meg Little Reilly and Richard Watts

September 20, 2021
An American flag with a big crack through it
Source: iStock

US higher education has for decades been a battleground in the nation’s culture wars. However, in recent months the culmination of partisan politics, free speech conflicts, mounting class inequality and a reckoning with racism has brought these simmering tensions to a full boil.

Meanwhile, the pandemic has emboldened all of us to take stock of the ways that institutions have been aids and obstacles to the American dream. There is opportunity in this unrest for colleges to shed what is not working and to recommit to their guiding principles. And make no mistake: if they do not chart their way forward with intention in the coming years, their paths will be chosen for them by fickle markets, political winds and hyperpartisan news.

America’s deep divisions are exacerbated by a (mostly justifiable) loss of faith in civic structures. That has created a vacuum of leadership – but that vacuum can at least in part be filled by higher education institutions with the will and the courage to reclaim their mantle as central pillars of a thriving democracy.

The great philosopher and psychologist (and University of Vermont alumnus) John Dewey established the notion of education as a social process: not preparation for life, but a correlative democratic experience in itself. He considered schools and civil society to be the two most fundamental elements of a functional pluralistic nation, working in tandem to create a more enlightened, informed and engaged citizenry.

When these ideas were first introduced in the late 19th century, they were at odds with the fact that colleges were mostly self-contained islands for the privileged few. Since then, with the diversification of offerings and the democratising effect of the American GI Bill, schools have woven Dewey’s ideas into their pedagogy unevenly. Their failure to fully embrace the relationship between colleges and democracy has been to our collective detriment.

But what does fully realising these ideals entail? It requires schools to double down on the holistic vision of college as a place to learn not only discrete facts and skills within majors, but also the skills that make for active and engaged citizens, such as analytical and critical thinking, intercultural and global fluency, and ethical decision-making.

Equally important, this holistic vision must acknowledge that college is a social experience unlike any other: a place for young people to learn how to live independently as civil neighbours. It means that even as schools improve access with the technological advances that the pandemic prompted (such as hybrid classrooms), they must preserve the collective effervescence that only in-person experiences can provide.

Most importantly, colleges must lean into their role as pillars of democracy by making this commitment a fixture of their curricula. That entails meaningful opportunities for all students to engage with the democratic process in the real world, regardless of their area of study.

We’re doing this today at the University of Vermont with our Local Democracy Project, but we are certainly not alone. The University of Virginia recently launched the Karsh Institute of Democracy, and there are civic learning programmes at Duke, Cornell, Brown, Tufts and California State University, Los Angeles, to name just a few. Land-grant universities are particularly well suited to building civic infrastructure because their mission is defined by the three pillars of teaching, research, and extension to meet public needs. One could argue that we have a mandate to our neighbours to make democracy work better.

At Vermont, we work with students across a range of fields and career aspirations. They are discovering their agency in public decision-making and establishing real connections in our state. Some of them go on to be professional journalists and civic leaders, but all of them will be engaged voters for life.

This may be the special sauce of civic internships: giving students of every stripe a chance to work with community leaders on real projects in real cities and towns and to invest in their work’s outcomes – because the only way to understand the abstract notion of the common good is to genuinely feel it. Above all, that is what our students take with them. And, in the process, the people living in these towns and cities recognise the value of their local colleges to their well-being.

It’s a model that could work anywhere, but we need it most urgently in the US today. American colleges and universities are uniquely positioned to rebuild public trust and commitment to a common purpose by investing in the next generation of engaged citizens. We should seize the opportunity – for the good not only of our schools and our students, but of our democracy and our nation.

Meg Little Reilly is director of the University of Vermont’s Local Democracy Project and former deputy associate director of communications and strategy at the White House Office of Management and Budget under President Obama. Richard Watts is director of the Center for Research on Vermont at the University of Vermont.

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