Colleges become democracy 'boot camps'
Project-based political science classes help students make the leap from theory to practice.
(Page 2 of 2)
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.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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.