Higher Education Exchange 2020: Democracy Divided
The year 2020 has been a time of great stress for our nation and for the world. The most prominent issues facing our nation—the coronavirus pandemic, racial injustice, and reopening the economy—have been politicized and framed in ways that reinforce divisions rather than bring the public together. These events have reinforced the dominant, polarizing messages about politics that young people have been receiving throughout our public culture, while undermining their hope for and confidence in democracy. What kind of democracy do we want? What will it mean if the only political experiences available to young people are adversarial in nature? Where will they learn the other skills they need to be effective citizens? Higher education has an opportunity to reshape the political socialization of young people and restore our young people’s faith in democracy. However, to do so, it will have to model a different kind of democracy, a politics of bridging divides and breaking down social bubbles rather than reinforcing polarization and continuing politics-as-usual. The articles presented in the 2020 issue of HEX provide examples of how higher education can model deliberative alternatives to adversarial politics—a different kind of democracy that we think can inspire our next generation of citizens.
This opening essay contrasts adversarial conceptions of democracy, which have become dominant in American media and culture, with deliberative approaches and suggests higher education’s important role in providing young citizens with alternative models of democratic politics.
Hoyt and Garrett reflect on the need for deliberative politics as the global community seeks to come together in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. For potential models, they look to a series of experiments on campuses in Hong Kong, Israel, Kenya, and South Africa that developed and introduced students to a new civic engagement paradigm with the potential to disrupt the adversarial cycles of division and polarization.
Donelan develops a conceptual framework for deliberative democracy, bringing ideas from the works of Jürgen Habermas together with practical experiences introducing students to dialogue and deliberation. According to Donelan, deliberation suggests a process for making decisions without prescribing the outcome, thus providing students with an alternative to skepticism at a time when democracy itself is in question.
NASPA, the leading organization of student affairs professionals, has partnered with the Kettering Foundation to create a deliberative issue guide focused on free speech on college campuses. This article describes NASPA’s motivations for this work and the insights that the framing team gained through the process of framing an issue and producing its first issue guide aimed at promoting deliberative conversations among college students.
Burke, a history professor at Saint Louis University, has incorporated deliberation into some of her courses. Students have participated in classroom deliberations about historical events and have created their own deliberative framings for classroom assignments. In this article, Burke reflects on interviews with several of her former students about the tensions and outcomes of historical deliberation.
Robinson moderates a conversation with community college faculty to reflect on their experiences with deliberative democracy. While their institutions are the most accessible and locally rooted, they also experience the greatest pressure to focus narrowly on workforce development. As the faculty members argue, deliberative democracy offers the potential to develop skills that promise to be useful in both the careers and civic lives of graduates and to reimagine the civic purposes of the most democratic institutions in the sector.
In this review essay, HEX coeditor Lovit responds to several recent books that argue that inequalities in American higher education are damaging to democracy. Despite genuine commitment to civic education by faculty and staff at a wide range of colleges and universities, this literature suggests that higher educations’ devotion to “meritocracy” can deepen social divisions and fail to prepare students for democratic engagement.
In this concluding essay, Mathews, president of the Kettering Foundation, reflects on the challenges faced by both democracy and higher education as citizens’ faith in authoritative institutions (including both governmental and educational institutions) has declined in recent decades. Mathews reviews Kettering research that suggests possibilities for citizens (in this case, often students) to work with institutions.