Ben Belz, Assistant Director of Student & Civic Engagement, Texas A&M University-Central Texas
June 29, 2018
While it could be argued that the major purpose of higher education is to prepare and equip students for their future employment, foundational works like A Crucible Moment and others highlight the ways that institutions of higher education can and should be working to educate and equip the next generation of engaged citizens. A Crucible Moment argues that “[as] a democracy, the United States depends on a knowledgeable, public-spirited, and engaged population. Education plays a fundamental role in building civic vitality, and in the twenty-first century, higher education has a distinctive role to play in the renewal of US democracy” (The National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, p. 2). It is because of this call for investment in higher education’s capacity to renew the nation’s civic capital and the current incivility within the American political landscape that effective political learning and engagement are vitally important.
There are many ways that politics and incivility are affecting our college campuses, from controversial speakers to student protests, but a subtler way is in what our students are choosing to study. Research by Stephen Porter and Paul Umbach (2006) found that, after personality, political views were the most powerful predictor of major. What’s more, Porter and Umbach found that “students with more liberal views are more likely to choose a non-science major” (p. 444). While a student’s political views influencing their choice of academic major isn’t necessarily a reason to be concerned, it becomes one if students avoid certain majors because they feel that their thoughts and beliefs won’t be engaged or represented in those majors.
So, we believe that higher education has a duty to educate and equip an active and engaged citizenry and research shows that students are avoiding at least some majors because of their own personal political views. How do we as educators ensure that our students are being challenged academically and otherwise while also ensuring that they feel comfortable and empowered to study what they want to study?
One way may be to ensure that the classroom is an environment where their views are respected and engaged. Research out of the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education has shown pervasive political discussions to be an especially significant source of student political learning and engagement. Thomas and Brower (2017) found that “the classroom was an important venue for political discussion” and that “some of the critical ingredients for a skillfully moderated discussion included professors playing devil’s advocate to elicit unpopular or unrepresented perspectives” (p. 7). Beyond helping to develop active and engaged citizens, ensuring that our classrooms are places where diverse beliefs are engaged may encourage students to pursue their degree program of choice, regardless of their own political beliefs.
Not to suggest that a student’s views and perspectives should be supported without any challenge. As Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA, said during a recent Q&A on HigherEdJobs.com, “college should be an opportunity to hear different viewpoints from what you heard growing up as part of the development process…Making students a little uncomfortable often has a positive outcome” (Hibel 2018). Kruger makes sure to differentiate between a civil discourse involving two opposing viewpoints and incivility that pushes racist, anti-Semite, or other hate speech. College is certainly a place where students should be challenged and pushed, but also a place where hate should be called out for what it is. The problem is that research suggests that higher education is doing a good job of making one side of the aisle particularly uncomfortable, to the point of non-representation, in certain disciplines.
This leaves us with the charge of ensuring we are challenging our students’ preconceptions while also working to engage and advocate for the unpopular or unrepresented opinions. There are a multitude of strategies that may help us in this charge, from changes in faculty hiring practices to changes in classroom teaching practices to fostering increased civility outside of the classroom.
With controversial speakers choosing to target our institutions and news media dissecting every political action done on a college campus we’ve already seen the potential for our campuses to be a means of furthering our divide, but the reality is that, with effort put in both inside and outside of the classroom our institutions can play a major part in rebuilding civility in our country.
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