Diversity and Democracy

From the Editor: Student and Institutional Engagement in Political Life

The idea is set forth in that most foundational of American documents, the Declaration of Independence: the power of governments depends on “the consent of the governed” (1776). And yet, the power of a thriving American democracy depends on so much more than consent. It requires active engagement and involvement in public life—participatory practice that, in turn, necessitates a certain set of proficiencies among a nation’s people.

Higher education has a responsibility to help students develop these proficiencies (Adelman et al. 2014, 5). That is why, as detailed recently in Lumina Foundation’s Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP), all college students should be expected to demonstrate civic and global learning, which itself requires “analytic inquiry and engagement with diverse perspectives” (19). The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) has promoted such learning across its recent projects, from its work helping teams of educators apply the DQP’s recommendations to its collaborative leadership through the Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement Action Network to its signature initiative, Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP).

This issue of Diversity & Democracy examines how educators can direct their efforts toward a particular and often-maligned sphere: the realm of political engagement. As detailed extensively by the Pew Research Center, the circulatory system of American democracy sometimes seems far from healthy. According to Pew Research, “partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive … than at any point in the past two decades” (Pew 2014a, 6) and “public trust in government” is “near historic lows” (Pew 2014b). As a critical incubator for civic practice, higher education has an essential role to play in reviving public life.

Produced in partnership with the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education (or IDHE, an initiative of Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service) and guest edited by institute director Nancy Thomas, this issue of Diversity & Democracy invites readers to explore innovative practices supporting student and institutional engagement in political life. Framed by Thomas’s meditation on academia’s work to educate students for “the democracy we need” and highlighting curricular practices that IDHE researchers have found particularly effective in advancing such educational goals, the issue suggests the various roles that students, faculty, and administrators can play in education for a politically engaged and socially just democracy. The issue highlights practices consistent with IDHE research on campus cultures that promote political learning and engagement and illustrates how institutions are preparing students to bridge theory and practice in public life. It encourages readers to consider the role of student voting in political learning, while refusing to equate political engagement with voting alone.

The issue delves into these topics because, at a time when American politics are widely associated with partisanship, investment in political life—a single but critical aspect of civic engagement—must be a priority across partisan lines. As Thomas argues in her article, “a healthy democracy” requires civic participation, attention to equity, access to information, and strong government structures. By engaging in politics and policy issues, students can practice the proficiencies they need to help build such a democracy and contribute to American and global society. Through higher education, they can hone critical skills in working collaboratively across difference, as they will be called to do in their professional and public lives.

As richly diverse as the American people are—in race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, and, indeed, ideological affiliation—there is one key aspect that they often share. As Abigail Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson, first drafter of the Declaration, of partisanship in the early republic: “upon both sides are characters, who possess honest views, and act from honorable motives … who tho entertaining different opinions, have for their object the public welfare and happiness” (1804). This issue invites readers to pursue that “welfare and happiness” by embracing the challenges and significant rewards of student and institutional political engagement.

—Kathryn Peltier Campbell
Editor, Diversity & Democracy


Adams, Abigail. 1804. “To Thomas Jefferson from Abigail Smith Adams, 18 August 1804.” http://rotunda.upress.virginia.edu/founders/default.xqy?keys=FGEA-chron-1800-1804-08-18-4.

Adelman, Cliff, Peter Ewell, Paul Gaston, and Carol Geary Schneider. 2014. The Degree Qualifications Profile. Indianapolis, IN: Lumina Foundation.

Pew Research Center. 2014a. Political Polarization in the American Public. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center. http://www.people-press.org/files/2014/06/6-12-2014-Political-Polarization-Release.pdf.

———. 2014b. “Public Trust in Government: 1958–2014.” http://www.people-press.org/2014/11/13/public-trust-in-government/.

United States. 1776. “Declaration of Independence.” http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_transcript.html.

Kathryn Peltier Campbell is the editor of Diversity & Democracy.

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