Diversity and Democracy

From the Editor

When life’s pace and complexity seem overwhelming, a simple checklist can be an appealing way of applying structure and order. Given the significant upheaval many students of all ages experience when entering college, then, it’s difficult to blame those who are tempted to see their general education requirements as items on a list, prerequisites to graduation to be crossed off one by one. And yet, such an approach suggests deep disengagement from the core purposes of higher education. It implies an instrumentality that only skims the surface of the complex challenges US colleges and universities were, at their best, designed to address.

The idea that components of one’s education are boxes to be checked seems most fitting if higher education is simply a series of training modules preparing students for the workforce. But higher education must be so much more than this. As Michael S. Roth recently recounted in The Chronicle of Higher Education (2014), American luminaries from Thomas Jefferson to Martha Nussbaum have conceived of liberal learning in college as necessary to prepare students for the messy unknown that is life, not simply the specific requirements of a job. As Roth argues, a narrowly practical approach to higher education will do nothing less than “impoverish us.”

AAC&U’s Board of Directors makes a similar point in an August 2013 statement, asserting that American higher education’s value depends not on its economic outcomes, but on its ability to yield “the learning all students need for success in a complex economy and for informed participation as citizens in a diverse and globally engaged democracy.” This issue of Diversity & Democracy addresses part of this ambition by focusing on how colleges and universities are preparing all students for democratic participation through their general education curricula.

This issue focuses on general education because it is a route to learning along which all an institution’s students are likely to travel—and indeed, preparation for civic participation is a necessity for all students. But it is worth repeating the common refrain that students’ general education experiences do not occur in isolation. Instead, these experiences set the tone for and interconnect with the in-depth exploration that occurs elsewhere, within and outside of college: in the major, in the cocurriculum, in students’ many communities, and in their lives after graduation. Readers should thus consider the broader context of students’ educational experiences as they join this issue’s authors in asking what it means to foster democratic engagement in general education.

Many of the programs and practices included here address this question by framing democratic engagement as a subject with which students grapple through their general education experiences. Several contributing authors describe how opportunities connected to their institutions’ general education programs are preparing students to become the globally competent citizens that the AAC&U Board of Directors envisions. These educators share how they are helping students practice the skills and proficiencies necessary to contribute to a globally connected and diverse civic sphere.

At the same time, several of this issue’s authors are asking what it means to engage democratically in one’s education. Underscoring the importance of student voice and personal investment in one’s own learning, these authors are calling on higher education to create a more democratic approach—one that allows students to be “full participants” in the educational experiences they help create (as Adam Bush writes); one that refuses to disenfranchise any member of the educational community on the basis of his or her contingent employment status (as Maria Maisto imagines).

To return to the idea of checkboxes: the practice of considering general education as a series of requirements to be checked off a list has broad implications for student learning—especially when that learning is intended as a pathway to lifelong democratic engagement. If general education means nothing more to students than discrete tasks to be completed, will democratic participation mean anything more to them than periodically selecting the political candidates they find least objectionable? Like options on a ballot, these components of students’ transcripts have far broader implications—for students’ learning and for their future as “citizens in a diverse and globally engaged democracy.”


AAC&U Board of Directors. 2013. “Ensuring the Value of US Higher Education.” 

Roth, Michael S. 2014. “The False Promise of ‘Practical’ Education.” Chronicle of Higher Education, May 19. http://chronicle.com/article/The-False-Promise-of/146549/.

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