Colleges become democracy 'boot camps'

Project-based political science classes help students make the leap from theory to practice.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The waiting list is long for a class at Providence College where democracy comes to life.

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).

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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.

Many of the courses include service-learning projects, which are predictors of political engagement, according to a report by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at the University of California, Los Angeles.

In Ms. Blount's year-long Service Opportunities in Leadership course, students create community-based research projects for the summer and then follow up with policy recommendations.

Student discovers the power of one

Channing Mathews, now a junior at Duke, went to Charlotte, N.C., to work with a community group and to study tensions between Hispanic immigrants and African-Americans.

When Ms. Mathews started college, she says her idea of "politics" was narrow – she thought it pertained mainly to elected politicians, and she had little interest. "I was pretty disillusioned with the idea of me making a difference," she says.

Now she's written a 25-page memo for the community group, detailing the issues raised among those she interviewed in Charlotte. Next she wants to apply the lessons to improving campus racial dialogue.

"This class by far is the hardest I've ever taken at Duke," Mathews says. "I'm being pushed to really think about what I care about and ... to take action about it."

Battistoni's students echo that appreciation: "I've never really been forced to think about my own theory [of democracy]," says Chris Gunneson, a senior at Providence College. In his "thought book" assignments, he's written more than 70 pages on his own perspectives, bouncing off ancient and modern theorists.

He and his classmates have also been excited about a voter-registration and awareness campaign they've been conducting this semester. Several said how worthwhile it felt when students would thank them for helping them register locally. To Mr. Gunneson, the voter-registration form is a symbol of "the opportunity to check our leaders.... That is what separates democracy from an authoritarian form of government.... We have the ability to say, 'I don't like what's going on, and I'm going to do something about it,' " he proclaimed during his presentation.

Certainly, the campuses where these 21 courses are taught don't have a monopoly on avidly political students. And wherever such students can be found, they try to persuade their peers to defy the label of "apathetic."

"I hear so much in the media about either [college students] are lazy or we don't vote or we don't care, but I don't feel that's right," says Tyler Lewelling, a junior at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville (which is not featured in the book) and an intern this semester at the College Republican National Committee in Washington. "I care about our country and the future of the world we live in.... [I] and my friends want to help do something to make sure we have a better world."

In anticipation of the 2008 presidential election, he's heard a number of college friends that usually aren't politically minded say they are going to jump into the fray, either because they're upset about the war in Iraq or they don't want to see Hillary Clinton win.

The next step for the Political Engagement Project is to assist professors and campus leaders who want to enhance their own programs through the lessons outlined in "Educating for Democracy."

In California, 23 professors on various campuses have signed on to the idea, Mr. Ehrlich says. And eight campuses involved in the American Democracy Project (ADP), affiliated with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, have agreed to work toward educating all their students for political engagement. If that pilot goes well, Ehrlich says, more of the 200-plus members of ADP are likely to follow suit.

"If a department or ideally a whole campus says this is a priority ... it's more reinforced," Ehrlich says. "It gives us a good deal of reason to think positively.

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