To fix democracy, start with colleges


American higher education has for decades been a battleground in the country’s cultural wars. However, in recent months, the climax of partisan politics, conflicts over free speech, growing class inequalities and a reckoning with racism has brought these latent tensions to a boil.

Meanwhile, the pandemic has encouraged us all to take stock of how institutions have been aids and hindrances to the American dream. There is an opportunity in this turmoil for colleges to get rid of what is not working and re-commit to their guiding principles. And make no mistake: if they don’t chart their course with intention in the years to come, their paths will be chosen for them by fickle markets, political winds, and new hyperpartisans.

America’s deep divisions are exacerbated by a loss of (mostly justifiable) trust in civic structures. This has created a leadership vacuum – but this void can at least in part be filled by higher education institutions with the will and courage to resume their role as central pillars of a thriving democracy.

The great philosopher and psychologist (and alumnus of the University of Vermont) John dewey established the notion of education as a social process: not a preparation for life, but a correlative democratic experience in itself. He saw schools and civil society as the two most fundamental elements of a functioning pluralistic nation, working in tandem to create a more enlightened, informed and engaged citizenship.

When these ideas were first introduced in the late 19th century, they clashed with the fact that colleges were mostly self-contained islands for the privileged few. Since then, with the diversification of offers and the democratizing effect of the American GI Bill, schools have unevenly integrated Dewey’s ideas into their teaching. Their failure to fully embrace the relationship between colleges and democracy has been to our collective detriment.

But what does the full realization of these ideals imply? This forces schools to double down on the holistic view of the university as a place to learn not only discrete facts and skills within majors, but also skills that make active and engaged citizens, such as analytical thinking. and criticism, intercultural and global fluency, and ethical decision-making.

Equally important, this holistic view must recognize that college is a social experience like no other: a place where young people learn to live independently as civilian neighbors. This means that even as schools improve access with technological advances sparked by the pandemic (like hybrid classrooms), they must preserve the collective effervescence that only in-person experiences can provide.

Most importantly, colleges need to address their role as pillars of democracy by making this commitment an integral part of their curricula. This implies significant opportunities for all students to engage in the democratic process in the real world, regardless of their field of study.

We are doing it today at the University of Vermont with our Local democracy project, but we are certainly not alone. The University of Virginia recently launched the Karsh Institute for Democracy, and there are civic learning programs at Duke, Cornell, Brown, Tufts, and California State University, Los Angeles, to name a few. Land universities are particularly well suited to the construction of civic infrastructure because their mission is defined by the three pillars of education, research and extension to meet the needs of the public. One could argue that we have a mandate towards our neighbors to improve the functioning of democracy.

In Vermont, we work with students in various fields and career aspirations. They are discovering their power in public decision-making and making real connections in our state. Some of them become professional journalists and civic leaders, but all will be electors who are engaged for life.

Perhaps this is the special sauce of civic internships: giving students of all stripes the chance to work with community leaders on real projects in real cities and get involved in the results of their work – because the only one way to understand the abstract notion of community good is to feel it sincerely. This is especially what our students take with them. And, in the process, the people living in these cities recognize the value of their local colleges for their well-being.

It’s a model that could work anywhere, but we need it most in America today. U.S. colleges and universities are uniquely positioned to restore public confidence and commitment to a common goal by investing in the next generation of engaged citizens. We must seize the opportunity – for the good not only of our schools and our students, but of our democracy and our nation.

Meg Little Reilly is director of the Local Democracy Project at the University of Vermont and a former deputy assistant director of communications and strategy in the White House Office of Management and Budget under President Obama. Richard Watts is director of the Vermont Research Center at the University of Vermont.

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