One year ago, I posted an Election Reflection blog in which I argued: “Political learning and engagement in democracy begins anew today, not during the next election season. Like all elections, this one should be a wake-up call.” I challenged colleges and universities to seize this moment in the nation’s history to teach students across all disciplines to explore multiple perspectives on issues; to advance quality political discourse; to fact check candidates, social media, and pundits, and to engage with local communities. On this one-year anniversary, I reissue that call for reflection and challenge campuses to examine what’s been done during the past year to educate not for the democracy we have, but the democracy we want.
I offer three questions to drive reflection about the past year:
- Can members of your campus community talk about political issues, perspectives, and controversies yet remain collegial? (Note: I did not say “congenial.”) Our Institute for Democracy & Higher Education research team visited nine campuses around the country to study their campus climates for political learning and engagement. We found that politically engaged campuses foster habits of political discussions across differences of social identity and political ideology. These were not just water-cooler conversations. Students across disciplines learned to analyze political issues, examine them from multiple perspectives, take a stand—sometimes not their own—debate, discuss, deliberate, advocate, and communicate orally and verbally. Students reported that their professors used discussion-based teaching methods and were skilled at demanding high standards of evidence when expressing opinions. They were also skilled at exploring all perspectives on an issue and at diffusing conflict. Students, faculty, and staff work together and share responsibility—the very definition of collegial—for each other’s learning and campus life. These conditions enable intense (not necessarily congenial) discussions without affecting relationships.
Did your students vote in 2016? Voting is not the only measure of political participation, but it is a fundamental act of citizenship and a reasonable proxy for student interest in public affairs. It can also be measured objectively, without cost or effort on your part. Your NSLVE reports will tell you where you need to direct your energies; for example, to your youngest students or to students in particular disciplines. Some assessment questions to consider:
- Did you increase participation among students of color at rates proportionate to white students?
- Do your students know how to register to vote and vote?
- Do they know that they have a civil right to vote locally?
- Do they understand the issues and candidate positions enough to make informed choices?
- Do they understand what’s at stake if they do not vote—that elected officials pay attention to voters, not nonvoters?
- Did you host faculty teach-ins or campus-wide discussions about your voting rates?
- Have you revisited and clearly articulated your civic educational goals and pedagogical objectives? Partisan lawmakers, angry self-appointed watchdogs, and those who would use it as a cover for spewing hate or violence have hijacked debates over free speech. Beyond the controversies that tend to captivate media attention, conflict over free speech offers opportunities for students to learn the history, current tensions, and limits to the First Amendment. This learning is essential to preparing students for democracy. The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed the “four essential freedoms of a university to determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study (354 U.S. 234, 263).” Institutions need not and should not accept speech that denies the rights of others, promotes violence, fosters contrived conflict with no intellectual merit, or causes disruption to the educational process. Of course, it is best to err on the side of allowing controversial speech in the interest of promoting the robust exchange of ideas. But sometimes, you may need to draw a line. You will be on firmer ground if you can base decisions about controversial speakers and speech on consistent, clearly articulated academic goals, pedagogical objectives, and democratic principles and practices.
While tense and often discouraging, the past year has given educators one teachable moment after another. I hope that you saw it that way as well.
Nancy Thomas directs the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life. The Institute is a research center and think tank on college and university student political learning and engagement in democracy. IDHE’s research interests include student voting, campus conditions for political learning, increasing political agency and equity for underrepresented and marginalized populations of students, and classroom teaching practices. The Institute’s signature initiative is the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE), a service to more than 1,000 U.S. colleges and universities nationally that provides participating institutions with tailored reports containing their students voting rates broken down by student demographic and education information.
You can follow along with our work on Twitter @TuftsIDHE.