George Davis, Associate Professor at Marshall University, is a guest contributor for the RAISE the Vote Campaign. The views expressed in the posts and articles featured in the RAISE the Vote campaign are those of the authors and contributors alone and do not represent the views of APSA.
As educators, political scientists often find themselves on the frontline of efforts to increase democratic engagement. Our teaching emphasizes multiple aspects civic life. Our classes examining the nature of political institutions, promote student volunteerism through programs like community-based learning, and encourage democratic participation at every level of politics, from local school boards to global civil society. Through avenues like the American Political Science Association’s Public Engagement Program, we promote civic education and political engagement as part of our larger public mission.
Undeniably, these efforts are professional obligations. It is our job to promote participation on campus and in the larger community. As a democratic theorist, however, I increasingly find myself wondering if these efforts are enough. In a culture where appeals to civic responsibility are often met with indignation, perhaps our efforts to convince students of participation’s intrinsic value would be more persuasive if, as teachers, we show our willingness to practice what we preach and build democratic engagement as deeply as possible into the course experience. If active citizenship is predicated on critical inquiry, political efficacy and self-determination, perhaps it makes sense to provide students a chance to develop these capacities through democratic participation in major course decisions, including the schedule, readings, assignments, etc.
In a culture where appeals to civic responsibility are often met with indignation, perhaps our efforts to convince students of participation’s intrinsic value would be more persuasive if, as teachers, we show our willingness to practice what we preach and build democratic engagement as deeply as possible into the course experience.
I think the work of John Dewey is particularly instructive for anyone interested in rethinking civic engagement in the context of higher education. In 1939’s Freedom and Culture, Dewey articulated what he considered the greatest threat to American democracy. What worried Dewey was the rise of a number of impersonal forces, such as technological progress, market rationality, and bureaucratic decision making. As these forces gained cultural influence, Dewey thought, Americans developed undemocratic attitudes that valued hierarchical authority and economic rationality over self-determination and democratic engagement.
For Dewey, the antidote for this affliction was obvious: reinvigorating democracy by reintegrating it into our cultural lives. Democratic engagement, he thought, requires more than periodic exercise; it requires muscle-memory developed through continuous practice. Because of this, Dewey considered education a strategic battlefield in the struggle to reaffirm democratic ethos. Schools are unique institutions, he thought, because although they foster discipline and deference for authority, they also have the potential to be laboratories for democracy. In Education and Democracy Dewey argued that intellectual development and democratic engagement are inextricably linked. Imagining schools as participatory communities, Dewey identified learning with the process of activating students’ capacities for critical inquiry, creativity, and efficacy, the very dispositions necessary to democratic life. In short, student success is essential for engaged citizenship.
Claims about “shared governance” notwithstanding, universities are hardly overflowing with opportunities for democratic engagement.
Dewey seems especially prescient, and his concerns resonate a little too well with our current culture. I am convinced by Dewey’s claim that education is an important site of struggle, and I think higher education is paradigmatic here. Claims about “shared governance” notwithstanding, universities are hardly overflowing with opportunities for democratic engagement. Students, especially, are likely to be excluded from the decision-making process, even when their directly affected by the decisions. Like other university “stakeholders,” the academic and financial well-being of students is instead decided by faceless bureaucrats, esoteric committees, and unaccountable consultancies.
At the same time, the university is still a place where contesting these more undemocratic aspects of American culture is possible. This is especially true of our individual courses, where faculty still retain considerable latitude regarding course structure and content. For those of us wishing to reinvigorate engaged citizenship, this provides an opportunity to rethink our courses in ways that promote deep democratic engagement by integrating student participation into the fundamental aspects of course design.
We reinforce the view that democratic engagement is only relevant to explicitly political activity and dissociated from other important facets of our lives.
Of course, building democratic engagement into our courses is not easy; it demands considerable shifts in how we understand our role as teachers, perhaps in ways that make us uncomfortable. Academic culture perpetuates the idea that professors are experts; as teachers, we know what is best for our students. In this context, promoting democratic engagement is often interpreted as encouraging student-centered discussion. This is a great place to start, but it ultimately rests on a narrow conception of democracy where student participation is possible only under predetermined conditions. We reinforce the view that democratic engagement is only relevant to explicitly political activity and dissociated from other important facets of our lives.
Reimagining our classes in ways that cultivates students’ capacities as efficacious, engaged citizens, requires giving up a significant portion of our own authority and control. It also requires taking students seriously as part of an intellectual community of equals, who have the right to participate in making the decisions that affect their lives. This means giving students a significant voice in the most fundamental aspects of our courses, such as deciding what they read and determining reading schedules; it also means allowing them to participate in the design of assignments, due dates, and even grading criteria. Perhaps more importantly, the truly democratic classroom requires that, as professors, we work to minimize our own role in course discussion and allowing students, themselves, to govern its direction.
Reimagining our classes in ways that cultivates students’ capacities as efficacious, engaged citizens, requires giving up a significant portion of our own authority and control. It also requires taking students seriously as part of an intellectual community of equals, who have the right to participate in making the decisions that affect their lives.
To be clear, this approach is not a panacea. It does not automatically transform college students into engaged students. Even if we can create the perfect classroom democracy, the rest of our students’ experiences are working against us. Most American cultural institutions are not the best places to learn democracy. What our own efforts might do, however, is leave students with a unique learning experience where they realize their critical capacities for and recognize the benefits of democratic engagement à la Dewey.
George Davis is Associate Professor of Political Science at Marshall University where he teaches courses in American Politics and Political Theory. His research explores relationships between Identity, citizenship, and environmental issues in Appalachia. He is also interested in how education influences attitudes about democratic citizenship.
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