American Democracy Is Sick. Can Colleges Be Part of the Cure?

Higher Education

American Democracy Is Sick. Can Colleges Be Part of the Cure?

By Rebecca Koenig     Oct 7, 2021

American Democracy Is Sick. Can Colleges Be Part of the Cure?
Students register to vote in Austin, Texas, in 2016.

Nancy Thomas has plenty of experience talking to college students about American democracy. Still, she didn’t expect the question one student asked her during a recent symposium at a university.

Was the election stolen?

“I was stunned. This is a person on a college campus. I said, ‘Unequivocally, there is no evidence of widespread fraud or that the election was stolen,’” recalls Thomas, the director of the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University. “The mere fact that a student is asking me that is evidence that student isn’t getting the memo on how to spot disinformation and lies.”

Thomas has long worried about whether higher education prepares students for the responsibilities of democracy. These days, she’s not alone. Educators are alarmed, and surveys of people ages 18 to 24 about the state of America’s democracy and values show “there is sort of a consensus among young people that they’re worried,” says Kelly Siegel-Stechler, a senior researcher at the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

There’s long been a belief that a more perfect civic education can lead to a more perfect union. Colleges tried service learning. Then they pushed to get out the vote. But the political events and rhetoric of the past few years—culminating in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol—have heightened the sense of urgency that higher education do something more to patch the widening cracks in American democracy. In an era of viral digital disinformation, eroding governance norms and increased political violence, the same old campus “civic engagement” programs no longer seem sufficient.

So now colleges are rethinking their efforts. In June, the University of Virginia announced that a new Institute of Democracy is in the works. In July, the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University won a grant to create a research framework about colleges and democracy. September saw the birth of the Civic Learning and Democracy Engagement coalition, led by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, Complete College America, College Promise and the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.

“We see this as central: to preserve democracy by drawing people together in civic discourse grounded in the civic purpose of higher education,” says Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Several of these new initiatives have a specific focus on racial equity. The idea is to educate students “for a strong and inclusive democracy,” says Thomas, the Tufts researcher. “It’s not the democracy we have, it’s the democracy we want and need. A more aspirational democracy.”

But at a time when officials in dozens of states are pressuring educators not to teach about race, programs that are “committed to an ethos of justice” are bound to “be alienating to some people,” says Demetri L. Morgan, a founder of the Higher Education & Diverse Democracy Project.

And even as some observers may critique new efforts as going too far, others worry they won’t go far enough toward equity—by teaching more explicitly about extremism, or embracing the political participation of student activists, or addressing the needs of students who lack resources.

“Oftentimes when people invoke ‘democracy,’ they want it to be for everybody, and then we depoliticize it,” says Morgan, an assistant professor of higher education at Loyola University Chicago. “What are we not going to equivocate on and not be willing to settle on?”

‘No Consensus’ About Citizenship and College

Ask how U.S. colleges got into the democracy business, and you may get a bit of a history lesson. There was President Truman’s “Higher Education for American Democracy” report from the 1940s. There was John Dewey’s book “Democracy and Education” from 1916. Laurent Dubois, who directs democracy programs at the University of Virginia, takes it back further, to the period he studies, the Age of Enlightenment.

“The idea that you could study humanity, understand humanity—and therefore contribute to better societies, better systems, better government—suffuses the work of the American founders,” Dubois says. “The modern university has roots before the 18th century, but a lot of it is shaped from that kind of culture, basically of optimism, that you could study the world and improve it by studying it.”

The very process of studying “can really embody some democratic ideals,” Dubois adds. On a campus—at least, in theory—students and professors are free and encouraged to explore, express and exchange ideas with others who have different backgrounds and perspectives—making it, Dubois says, the type of “shared space of compromise” required for a democracy to work.

Then there’s the fact that colleges are institutions of great social and economic influence, both within local communities and nationwide. Millions of people learn at them, work for them, and live near them.

“It gives them stature—or at least a toehold—as conveners, problem-solvers, educators,” Thomas says.

Research has indeed found links between higher education and participation in and attitudes toward democracy. People who complete college are more civically active and knowledgeable. In the U.S., people with at least a bachelor’s degree have “especially weak inclinations toward authoritarian political preferences,” according to a 2020 report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

Why exactly this is the case is not totally clear, however. It may be because of the liberal arts curriculum, the Georgetown report suggests. Or perhaps because a college degree often improves people’s economic security. Bringing different types of people together to learn from each other and “communicate across differences” might also help. So could the influence of peers on voting and other civic behaviors.

The list goes on and on. Higher education is bursting with classroom and extracurricular “interventions” that can “spur these civic engagements and attitudes,” says Matthew J. Mayhew, a professor of educational administration at The Ohio State University who studies the effects of college on the worldviews of students.

But ultimately, he adds, “there’s no consensus on exactly what citizenship is deconstructed to look like.”

The interventions colleges have intentionally tried haven’t all been especially successful. The rise of campus service learning—education that incorporates volunteering—may be one example. A 2012 report from the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that more than 70 percent of college students reported participating in service learning—yet also that, over time, students’ actual civic learning “is neither robust nor pervasive.”

“It’s very easy to do a service learning experience but not learn that we don’t have free and fair elections in some parts of this country, or our judiciary may or may not be independent at this point,” Thomas says. “There are many acts of citizenship that colleges promote, but where do they go?”

The most recent civic engagement trend to sweep higher education has been “a hyper-focus on voter engagement,” according to Morgan, a focus largely agnostic about who students actually vote for. And in recent elections, youth voter turnout has been notably high.

Yet if the Jan. 6 insurrection is a kind of report card on higher education’s efforts to strengthen democracy—and Morgan argues that it is—driving students to the polls may have failed to improve the country’s civic health.

In the aftermath of that violent episode, experts offer varying diagnoses and prescriptions. Educators need to be better trained to help students grow into citizens, Mayhew argues. Courses need to teach more explicitly about white nationalism and “creeping authoritarianism,” Thomas says. Colleges need to be bolder, Morgan adds.

“Who could be against voting? Who could be against volunteerism?” Morgan asks. “Every time there’s a rousing cry and call for higher education to be more engaged in safeguarding democracy and democracy building, what we see is higher ed chooses this safe, apolitical route.”

What About Activism?

Talk to college leaders and researchers about American democracy, and you’ll hear the same word repeated: “aspirational.” Democracy and higher education have that in common. Both systems boast of soaring ideals that don’t always match reality.

It’s true that, compared to the days when many colleges were largely reserved for wealthy white men, “access to higher education is far more democratic than it used to be,” Thomas says. Participation broadened notably after WWII, when federal education benefits helped (mostly white) veterans go to college, and in the late 1970s, when women passed men as the majority on campus. Meanwhile, historically Black colleges have long been champions of what scholar Monica P. Smith calls not civic engagement, but “liberation engagement”—efforts that “address systemic problems that oppress people within the democracy.”

“When you educate historically marginalized groups, you are educating for empowerment. You are educating for leadership. And it’s their reason for being,” Thomas says. “They have the corner on the market in doing it, just by virtue of the constituencies they serve.”

Now, about two-thirds of high school graduates enroll immediately in higher education (although a much smaller share end up completing a degree). Still, race and class disparities persist at colleges. And just as people left behind by democracy have had to push the system to live up to its promises, the same seems true in higher education. Yet even as the field shifts to thinking about “equity-committed civic learning”—in the words of the Civic Learning and Democracy Engagement coalition—that kind of activism is not always welcomed on campus, or viewed as a legitimate form of political participation.

“Nobody wants to be in the newspaper,” Thomas says. “It’s almost like one force pushing for issue awareness and knowledge and discussion and leadership, but then this countervailing force stops at the doorstep of activism and protest or anything disruptive to the college environment.”

Charles H. F. Davis III studies student organizing—he and Morgan co-edited a book on the subject. And his research makes him skeptical of what campus civic engagement programs can offer to student activists.

“Activism at its best is what makes democracy accountable to itself,” says Davis, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education. “Electoral politics, service learning, or civic engagement I think are very different.”

Sometimes, Davis argues, college leaders use institutional systems that have a civic engagement veneer to co-opt students’ political power. It might look like inviting a prominent activist to serve as student body president. Or creating a task force to study student policy demands slowly, over many years. Or turning a Black cultural space on campus into a multicultural center for all students.

Davis also isn’t convinced that college campuses—where segregation exists in majors, housing and social life—are inherently democratic environments. Or that encouraging college students to communicate across their differences typically leads to positive outcomes for students of color.

“They don’t want their lives to be made intellectual matters,” Davis says. “We reduce things that are deeply racist, sexist, homophobic to ‘matters of opinion,’ as if those don’t have consequences.”

Equity in Action

What student activists do tend to want is access to resources—or shifts in how universities use their resources within their broader communities, Davis explains. And that’s not necessarily what institutions are prioritizing in the latest iteration of their democracy-focused programs.

“We’re finally seeing conversations about equity. My opinion is, it’s pretty lukewarm,” Morgan says. “It’s not reflected in the leadership of organizations. It’s not reflected in the model they’re putting forth.”

But what if some of the goals of student activists and higher education leaders are more closely aligned than they realize? What if rethinking access to resources could actually make a difference in civic learning outcomes—a bigger difference than the other strategies colleges have tried in the past?

That’s one of Morgan’s theories. He points to research showing that the experiences students have in educational contexts sets their expectations for how responsive other institutions will be to them throughout their lives.

“If I grow up in a school where I feel like my voice is heard, I know who to go to for change, and I see that effected, that’s going to give me a much greater sense of political efficacy throughout my life than if I don’t have those kinds of experiences as a young person,” says Siegel-Stechler of the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

In this framing, students come into colleges expecting to be treated in certain ways, and having access to a more-equitable and responsive experience might change their trajectories, especially for students who didn’t grow up accompanying their parents to the polls or talking about elections around the dinner table. Maybe the key to getting students to vote and participate in public life later on is not to give them more or different civics courses or volunteer opportunities, but to empower them—all of them.

“College can level that playing field by creating really positive experiences for minoritized students—pathways and models for how students can engage in those experiences—and translate that to other democratic practices,” Morgan says. “How do we create higher-ed spaces where minoritized students can be successful and flourish?”

Naming equity as a goal in civic learning is one challenge. Figuring out what that looks like in action is another.

But Morgan thinks it’s worth the effort for higher education: “It’s one of the few institutions left, arguably, that can ameliorate the challenges of democracy—but also produce and establish a citizenry that is prepared for building democracy anew.”

Learn more about EdSurge operations, ethics and policies here. Learn more about EdSurge supporters here.

More from EdSurge

Get our email newsletterSign me up
Keep up to date with our email newsletterSign me up