Magazine Feature

Educating for Democracy in a Time of Crisis and Division

A conversation with Nancy Thomas about coming together when a pandemic and polarization are driving us apart

By Emily Schuster

Fall 2020

Amid a devastating pandemic and increasing polarization, how can US colleges and universities help students bridge divides, make their voices heard, and understand their responsibilities to others in a democratic society? Nancy Thomas, director of the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education (IDHE) at Tufts University’s Tisch College of Civic Life, spoke with Liberal Education about educating for democracy in this current moment. At IDHE, Thomas studies college students’ political learning and participation, overseeing the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement, as well as qualitative studies of campus climates for political learning and engagement in democracy. —Emily Schuster

In your recent report, Election Imperatives 2020: A Time of Physical Distancing and Social Action, you wrote, “Educating for democracy is inherently political.” What did you mean by that?

There are many pathways to educating for citizenship, like volunteerism, simulations like Model UN, or campaign work. But it’s not enough. Students also need to learn the context for these experiences and democratic principles (like justice) and practices (like policymaking). In a democratic society, people share responsibility for each other.

The COVID-19 pandemic is hitting us with devastating challenges but also providing many opportunities for educating for democracy. We are witnessing a stunning example of the argument over federalism and states’ rights, for example. Who makes the decision about wearing masks in an era of COVID? We want individuals to decide to wear masks because they feel a sense of responsibility to each other as members of a community. Yet too many people need to be told to wear masks, advice that many elected officials refuse to give.

The combination of a lack of clarity on who’s governing and the idea that we are a nation of rugged individualists is causing this pandemic to grow. It’s a tragedy, but it’s also a teachable moment.

What is the difference between political and partisan?

Political refers to governance and how communities make decisions. Partisan is linked to parties, campaigns, and candidates.

Faculty members cannot say to students, “You need to vote for this party or candidate,” because that’s partisan. But they can come down on a side of a political issue.

Academic freedom is in place so that educators can educate for democracy, which is inherently political. We have the freedom to critique, study, analyze, and comment on matters of public concern without external pressure to be apolitical or neutral.

During this time of social distancing, how can higher education leaders and faculty build a socially cohesive campus culture and encourage political engagement?

We know from research that students learn best through discussion, experience, and simulations. All those things are more difficult in an era of social distancing.

On top of that, we are faced with a highly polarized society. One of the best ways to break down polarization is to provide opportunities for students to practice talking to each other about different viewpoints and lived experiences. If faculty want to have politically charged conversations, they have to invest time in relationship building upfront. It comes down to social cohesion, which is harder to foster remotely.

Successful discussions about hot topics require professors to plan ahead for those quick, in-the-moment pedagogical choices. And to be thoughtful about fostering equitable classroom participation.

In our focus groups with students, both historically marginalized and conservative students said they felt isolated or unwelcome on campus. You don’t want to gang up on students for their political beliefs, yet it’s appropriate for a professor to say, “Tell me why you think that way, and back it up with evidence.” Students of color, on the other hand, experience a thousand tiny cuts of disparaging or racist comments. Hostility or ignorance can come through in a voice.

We always asked students in focus groups, “What’s your favorite class?” We saw a real pattern. Students prefer discussion-based classes. They value their relationships with professors. They appreciate the professors who will work with them if they’re having a crisis at home. These behaviors are more important than ever now.

How should educators engage with students who feel disillusioned by the US political system?

It’s tough, isn’t it? I’m disillusioned. But I’m not disengaged.

We know from research that activists vote at double the rate of nonactivists. So you can engage people in issue activism and bring them along that way.

If students don’t vote, they are invisible. Elected officials don’t cater to nonvoters—they cater to voters. Even if you voted against them, they view you as a voter, and you still count.

Young people are a formidable voting bloc, larger now than the baby boomers. Woe to politicians who do not adjust their platforms to meet the interests of young people.

Getting involved in students' civil right to vote is not partisan. Both parties should want everybody to vote.

What are some of the barriers to voting that students face?

One barrier is proof of identity and residency, two different things. Most of us use our driver’s license for both, but many college students don’t have a driver’s license. It’s an added problem if you’re in a state that only takes proof of identity from that state. Identification should be portable.

Campuses can work with state and local officials to help students provide proof of residency. The University of New Hampshire created an app that students can use when voting, which shows whether a student is enrolled and where they live. (The app is easy to replicate, and any campus that’s interested in doing so can contact us at [email protected].) Other campuses send out utility bills to students at their campus address, which they can use as proof of residency.

A big reform would be some uniformity across states. I once googled “voting machine,” and the search came up with twenty-eight different images. Students are mobile, and they have to relearn systems.

Easy mail-in voting, same-day voter registration, early voting, and convenient ballot drop boxes and polling locations are good for all Americans.

With the congressional redistricting process coming up in 2021, what should higher education leaders keep an eye on?

College presidents need to watch how redistricting affects representation. North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University, an HBCU, had been in one district that was represented by a Black female. In 2011, the campus was split in half. That resulted in the community being represented by two White Republican males. That was by design. This resulted in litigation, and eventually, the district was put back together.

I would love to see colleges and universities mobilize around racial injustice related to where polling locations are placed. College presidents have stature, respect in the community, and a voice. They need to use their position to ensure that students can vote near their campus. Getting involved in students’ civil right to vote is not partisan. Both parties should want everybody to vote.

What role can colleges and universities play in bridging polarization in the United States?

We are a siloed nation. We live with people like us. We watch the news that our neighbors watch. Journalist Bill Bishop calls it the “big sort.” College is a wonderful opportunity to unsort students.

We visited one campus that took this task very seriously and embedded relationship building and political discussions across difference into the first-year experience. One student in a focus group said, “I can disagree with someone and still care about that person. I still want to be their friend.”

That’s an important cultural norm for a campus and for our nation. We’ve got to start caring about each other a lot more than we currently do. College campuses are perfect places to do that.

Photo courtesy Nancy Thomas


  • Emily Schuster

    Emily Schuster is co-editor-in-chief of Liberal Education and senior editor at AAC&U.