Colleges become democracy 'boot camps'
Project-based political science classes help students make the leap from theory to practice.
The waiting list is long for a class at Providence College where democracy comes to life.Skip to next paragraph
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Right off the bat, Prof. Richard Battistoni asks the class to decide together how they should be graded. He routinely turns discussion-leading over to pairs of students.
As the semester wound down recently, students presented "artifacts" that symbolized their own views of what democracy means – everything from a voter registration form to a box of spaghetti (in which all the pieces are equal).
Strategies in this class and similar ones around the country aim to equip students to make their mark in the landscape of American democracy. But such efforts are too rare in higher education, some in the academic world say. They are urging colleges to do more to foster students' desire and ability to contribute in the political realm. The classroom, they say, can be a neutral arena for students to test their ideas and reflect on their attempts to make change in whatever real-world project they take on.
The Political Engagement Project by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in Stanford, Calif., which studied the outcomes of 21 such courses, is at the forefront of this push.
College students these days are doing volunteer projects in droves, but campuses don't offer enough "that is strong on educating them for their political responsibilities ... [for] trying to make a difference on a systemic level – that is a really important gap," says Anne Colby, a senior scholar at Carnegie and coauthor of a new book emerging from the three-year project, "Educating for Democracy: Preparing Students for Responsible Political Engagement."
Focus on engagement
The students tracked in the 21 courses, at a wide variety of colleges, gained on scales of political motivation, understanding, and skills. After taking these classes, they were more inclined to read about politics, to plan future involvement in political action, and to feel that they would be effective. Those who started without much interest in political issues (about half) made the most gains.
In urging colleges and universities to involve students more in political learning, it's essential that there be a neutral environment for discussion, says Thomas Ehrlich, an "Educating for Democracy" coauthor. "So much of the dialogue about politics that students hear from politicians and the media is the 'Crossfire' variety. In a college or university there's the obligation to engage in open inquiry, with rational issues being debated based on sound evidence ... and not just emotion."
The professors of these courses seek out diverse opinions and minority voices. "If a student expresses some discomfort with a point of view, we'll [ask him or her] to take that point of view and learn how to argue with it," says Alma Blount, director of the Hart Leadership Program at Duke University.
When Battistoni has students lead the class, at least one takes on the role of "vibes watcher." "If students are attacking other students instead of their ideas ... the vibes watcher can intervene," he says. "If students are silent or not really voicing their opinions ... the vibes watcher tries to lift those voices up."
It's not an easy job. During one discussion about gender and 19th-century laws, the issue of rape within marriage came up. One student said he didn't understand how it was possible for there to be rape in marriage, and the student discussion leaders "didn't want to honor that opinion at all," Battistoni says. After a few minutes of heated discussion, everyone backed off. "Some faculty are reticent to have open dialogue and discussion-based courses, because you never know what's going to happen," he says.