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Democracy in the 21st Century: Engaging Students to be More Civically-Minded

by Allison Rizzolo

Friday, January 13th, 2012

As Americans nationwide voice concern about the health of our democracy and our ability to work together to solve the problems facing the country, civic learning as a priority in education has plummeted. How can we move it from the periphery of education to the center? What experiences should schools, colleges and universities offer to prepare their students to be productive citizens? How can 21st century learning inspire our nation's young people to be more civically-minded, engaged and ready to lead?

On Tuesday, January 10th, Dr. David Mathews, Public Agenda board member and president of the Kettering Foundation, and Public Agenda's Jean Johnson, who is a board member of the National Issues Forums, traveled to the White House to explore these questions. As participants in "For Democracy's Future: Education Reclaims Our Civic Mission," they joined Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, other senior Obama Administration officials and higher education, government, business and philanthropy leaders to discuss how to help students take on their roles as citizens and future leaders.

The Kettering Foundation and National Issues Forums (NIF), both longtime partners and collaborators of Public Agenda, are doing important and extensive work in the role of higher education in democracy. Kettering is looking at how higher education can prepare young people for their role as citizens, while NIF will publish a citizens’ discussion guide on the mission and future of higher education in the spring. The guide will be used in communities and campuses nationwide as part of the American Commonwealth Project, a co-sponsor of the White House event.

Dr. Mathews, who moderated a panel discussion with a group of students and educators, explored how to define a citizen and what we mean by the word democracy. "We're living in a time when there's a contest over the meaning of democracy," he said. "It's a serious matter, and the key to it… is controlled by the way we understand the role of its citizens."

Ms. Johnson later reported on a breakout session discussing how this moment, one of crisis for the democracy, can also be a moment of opportunity, one where higher education can play an enormous role. But in order to do so, she reported, "we will have to change the expectations we have of higher education, higher education faculty, and students."

Participants in the session came up with a number of recommended capacities and experiences for higher education institutions to foster in order to encourage students to take on their role as citizens and future leaders. Among them:

  • Students and courses should focus more on problem-solving
  • Students should gain the skills and experiences that help them become "agents of change" and learn how to "make an idea happen"
  • Students should "model democratic practices to solve problems," especially in student government
  • Students should have the experience of "participating in dialogue on controversial issues"
  • They should have the skill and experiences that allow them to "form relationships that create imagination"
  • Higher education should develop in students the "hunger to understand how things work so they can weigh in and participate in problem-solving"
  • Students should learn that "listening is as important as having a voice"
  • Higher education can join forces with K-12 education, communities, etc. so that "civic agency becomes a national priority."

"For Democracy's Future" coincided with the release of two reports, one from the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education, and the other from the Department itself. It also marked the launch of a year of activities to revitalize the democratic purposes and civic mission of American education.

Arne Duncan, Secretary of the Department of Education, and Martha Kanter, Under Secretary of the Department, both spoke at the event. You can listen to their remarks and see other footage from "For Democracy's Future," including panel discussions and breakout session reports, here and here.

How can we, as a nation, make civic and democratic learning for all students a top national priority? Do you have any ideas for how colleges and universities can rise to this challenge? Share them here or on our Facebook wall, or tweet us your ideas.


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