Diversity and Democracy

Creating a Generation of Humanitarian Art Activists (Artivists)

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” So begins the founding document of our nation, perhaps the greatest political experiment in the history of humankind. Before the Federalist Papers were prepared by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, world history was dominated by powerful monarchies, dictatorships, and military empires. But the newly formed United States set upon a remarkable course of action toward equal rights for all citizens—a philosophy that we are still trying, unsuccessfully, to embody today, even as other nations try to emulate our political experiment.

Who are “We the People of the United States”? What cultures, languages, and identities are represented? Who enjoys the privilege of participating in the “general Welfare”? And who is secure in their liberties? To answer these questions, we need look no further than current events that reveal an epidemic of police shootings; destruction of rape test kits; persistent health and mental health disparities; and disproportionate representation of racial and ethnic minorities in prison. We need to turn the mirror on our citizen-selves and ask, to what extent has the world’s first multicultural government fulfilled its promise to improve the lives of all citizens equally?

Our republic is at a pivotal crossroads. Our form of government demands that citizens be knowledgeable about the issues; yet, as a whole, we are at best negligent, and at worst blissfully ignorant. In every one of the one hundred college classes I have taught during the last twenty years in Miami and Chicago, my students have been able to list fifteen to twenty Simpsons characters or Pokémon within seconds—but only three to four Supreme Court justices or Senators within minutes, if we are lucky. When I survey my students about politics and the national debt, their responses are nearly always pessimistic: We know the debt is huge. It doesn’t affect us, so why care? There is nothing we can do, so why bother? The 2012 report from the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, entitled A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future, shares a similarly bleak depiction of a democracy on the verge of inconsequence. Today, through the Citizenship Under Siege project, coordinated by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) and The Democracy Commitment (TDC) with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), institutions like Miami Dade College are reenvisioning collegiate learning with a focus on creating engaged citizens.

A Crucial Role for the Humanities

In the context of such a civics conundrum, the humanities can and must play an essential role. As described eloquently in The Heart of the Matter, “The humanities remind us where we have been and help us envision where we are going” (American Academy of Arts and Sciences 2013, 9). The arts, literature, music, theater, history, and dance challenge us to confront, embrace, express, and really understand what it means to be human—reflective, future-oriented, interconnected, inquisitive, creative, spiritual, and ethical. James Madison’s opening words in the Constitution and Thomas Jefferson’s first sentences in the Declaration of Independence are reminders of the basic humanities principles that informed these founding documents. Madison studied Greek, Latin, and philosophy; Jefferson studied philosophy, Latin, and law.

Within the broader humanities, art history and art appreciation—the subjects I teach—must play a role in our republic. Every successful company in the world employs artists—graphic designers, advertisers, interior decorators, writers, visual artists—to help it succeed. Florida has become a world-class tourist destination thanks in part to the artistic genius of Walt Disney; Disney World claims to generate nearly $18.2 billion annually, provide one of every fifty jobs in Florida’s tourism-related industries, and hold responsibility for 2.5 percent of Florida’s GDP (Garcia 2011). And yet, when state legislatures need to balance a budget, they defund the arts. I wonder, what would Madison, Hamilton, and Jefferson think of their own well-rounded liberal educations if they were governing today?  

Despite challenges from state legislatures, higher education is one of the last bastions for public civic discourse in the United States. In almost no other public arena are citizens encouraged, and in fact required, to engage in discourse, to listen with an open mind, to offer constructive criticism, and to reevaluate their values and priorities. Nonetheless, even higher education has witnessed efforts by liberal-leaning faculty and students to silence more conservative voices, denying the mission and vision of higher education to foster critical thinking and an engaged citizenry of multiple perspectives. Upholding a shared democratic vision—like that which the Constitution provides for our nation’s citizens—is both complicated and contentious.

Creating Student Artivists

Five years ago, in connection with Miami Dade College’s participation in Bridging Cultures to Form a Nation: Difference, Community, and Democratic Thinking, a project coordinated by AAC&U and TDC with funding from NEH, I redesigned my art classes (Art Appreciation, Art History 1 and 2, and Cinema Appreciation) as miniature democracy-in-action experiments. Instead of writing research papers, my students now design their own arts-based, semester-long projects around social issues and publicly present their projects (for example, lectures, art exhibits, YouTube videos, gallery shows, public forums, museum or dance club events). I demand that they maximize their untapped potential and make their voices heard. The results have been quite remarkable: students are more engaged and more diligent, within-course retention rates have increased by nearly 20 percent, and numericalgrades have increased by nearly 15 percent.

My students engage in ongoing dialogue about social issues that they have identified as interesting, critical, and urgent. If they aren’t passionate about these issues at the beginning of the semester, they certainly are by the end. Last semester, students created children’s books, cartoons, illustrated poetry, pamphlets, and photojournalist essays; they composed socially conscious songs and produced or directed music videos, short animations, documentary films, and spoof trailers; they partnered with nonprofit community-based organizations to design websites and advertising campaigns. Their work explored such topics as euthanasia, why people should vote, the importance of nutrition, the disappearance of the bee population, racial justice, equal pay for equal work, immigration policy, guns on college campuses, separation of church and state—and these are just a few examples. Through their projects, Miami Dade College art activists—artivists—have helped to raise more than $18,000 for local, national, and international causes, have provided nearly 12,500 hours of community service, and have presented their artworks to an estimated 350,000 viewers, all while combining their passions and interests with the content of our arts courses.

Students want, and they deserve, an educational experience that is relevant, fun, challenging, and rewarding. The social issues project provides this framework. Before the semester begins, I email students about the exciting challenge the class presents for them to use their education to influence their community and, in turn, to make the world a better place. In the opening days of class, I invite students to talk about their interests, talents, and passions. Most have wide-ranging interests, but few have identified the one they are the most passionate about. Throughout the first month, we talk at length and over time about their passions. During this time, I also require all students to visit me for individual Advising and Passions Meetings, during which we identify their interests and how to channel those interests toward social good through arts-based projects. These meetings represent my opportunity to express confidence in each student, to highlight the importance of each student’s issue, and to offer my help even if I don’t agree with a student’s beliefs. My goal cannot be to create a group of students who share my own philosophies (or even worse, who create work that represents my beliefs but not theirs). As a public authority figure, I never reveal my own leanings; rather, when we explore controversial issues during class, I present multiple viewpoints and their respective advantages and disadvantages, and I encourage students to justify their own well-informed opinions. I deviate from this approach only when a student presents an argument with no merit and no evidence (for example, Holocaust denial).

During the sixth week of the semester, students summarize the research on their social problems, citing peer-reviewed sources to demonstrate comprehensive understanding of the facts, causes, and controversies. Two weeks later, students submit rough sketches or drafts of their projects for me to critique based upon the messages that they are trying to convey. Students continue to iteratively revise their work weekly, until we both are satisfied that their social issues have been effectively integrated and articulated to raise awareness, reduce biases, attract attention, influence perspective taking and decision making, and/or raise funds. All student works must be completed and publicly displayed by the end of the term. The public display represents the culmination of our semester-long process, through which students have transformed their interests—their ideas—into meaningful, engaging, and influential works of art.

Igniting Students’ Passions

Over and over again, I watch my students marvel at their accomplishments and realize what the semester was all about. They have learned that their voices—and their art—have power. If we can ignite students’ passions to solve our most urgent and critical issues—crises related to human rights, the environment, and government mistrust—perhaps we can finally fulfill the promise of America for all Americans. I suspect that our founding fathers Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Jay would be proud of my students’ pursuits.

Editor's note: To read about the experiences of John Frazier's students, see Christian Carmelino and Sabrina Mendoza's article in this issue.


American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 2013. The Heart of the Matter. Cambridge, MA: American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Garcia, Jason. 2011. “Disney Says It Generates $18.2 Billion Annual Ripple Effect in Florida.” Orlando Sentinel, April 13. http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/2011-04-13/the-daily-disney/os-disney-economic-impact-20110413_1_disney-cruise-line-world-president-meg-crofton-disney-vacation-club.

National Task Force for Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement. 2012. A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

John Frazier is Assistant Professor of Art History at Miami Dade College.

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