Our Focus Authors for this quarter (February 2019) are Nancy Thomas, Tufts University, and Margaret Brower, University of Chicago. Their article “Conceptualizing and Assessing Campus Climates for Political Learning and Engagement in Democracy” was published in the November 2018 issue of the Journal of College and Character.
(Also see Nancy Thomas and Stephanie King, NASPA, in video blog interview hosted by Pete Mather, senior associate editor of JCC).
Below, they respond to a question posed by JCC co-editor Jon Dalton:
“If civic learning is inherently political, how can accusations of partisanship and indoctrination be avoided?”
They respond in this way:
Civic learning, if done well, is inherently political. Yet, we see reticence on the part of some institutional leaders and faculty to foray into the terrain of controversial issues and topics, often for fear of being accused of being partisan or indoctrinating students. However, political and partisan should not be viewed as interchangeable. The difference is important to colleges and universities that take seriously their role of educating for the health and future of democratic systems, communities, and society.
What would educating for democracy look like? Researchers at the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University’s Tisch College for Civic Life have worked with nearly two dozen diverse colleges and universities to examine their campus climates for political learning, discourse, and participation. We’ve found some exemplary practices that engage students in positive and productive discussions across differences of identity and ideology.
We’ve seen professors across disciplines explore with their students the public relevance of their field. We’ve seen activism and leadership that spur student interest and innovation. And we’ve seen it done in ways that promote critical thinking, openness, and activism while simultaneously preserving student well-being and sense of belonging on campus. These experiences are not, nor should they be, partisan. It is, of course, inappropriate for professors to advise students to align with a candidate or political party. However, professors may maintain standards and insist on evidence-based viewpoints. They may side on public issues. Indeed, that is why the right to academic freedom exists. Wading into political waters is the job. Academics fall short of their democratic purpose when they avoid politics and controversy. Colleges and universities are unique educational spaces that can and should facilitate civic learning, but if this learning process is not political, then students will not truly be prepared for engagement in democracy.