Magazine Feature

The Crisis of Civic Despair

Does higher education hold the remedy for society’s divisions?

By Marilyn Cooper

Spring 2024

In less than six months, US citizens will head to the polls to vote in the 2024 presidential elections. A majority of potential voters—62 percent—say that democracy in the United States could be at risk depending on who wins in November, according to a December 2023 poll from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Despite the high stakes, 58 percent of voters between the ages of 18 and 34 are not certain they’ll vote this fall, a February 2024 Axios-Generation Lab poll found.

That February poll is just the latest indication that Gen Z, the cohort born between 1997 and 2012 (including most current college and university students), is disillusioned with democracy. Almost one in three members of Gen Z says it “makes no difference” whether they live under a democracy or a dictatorship, and one in five believes a “dictatorship could be a good idea in certain circumstances,” according to a November 2022 Mood of the Nation Poll from the McCourtney Institute for Democracy.

Many in higher education believe that colleges and universities have a key role to play in cultivating engagement with democracy. Institutions can advocate for democratic systems, generate and share knowledge, or model a fairer and more representative society.

Liberal Education asked seven academic leaders and faculty members from across the country to share their personal perspectives and opinions about higher education’s role in democracy. Participants offered different viewpoints on campus events, the necessity of legislative and political interventions, and the status of freedom of expression. However, all participants agreed that a crisis is imminent—both for democracy and for institutions of higher learning.

Sophia Rosenfeld

Professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania

→Democracy today: There’s been a shift over the past ten years. Formerly, both political parties expressed a commitment to certain kinds of values—freedom, equality, justice, compassion—even if they were interpreted differently. That’s largely ended. A shared commitment across the political spectrum to certain rules and norms of politics is also evaporating. This has left us with dysfunction in many of our political institutions. It’s also testing the very idea of democracy.

As a result, some people are now asking a question that used to be taboo: is democracy really the best we can do? Our world is also facing problems, like climate change and the refugee crisis, that are hard to solve within nation-state democracies. All of this has led some young people to see democracy as ineffective and potentially even undesirable.

→A historical perspective: Universities are attached to the political culture, so they’re always likely to get caught in the ferment of democratic change. There have been other times when US democracy and universities were in crisis. In the 1960s, universities became a hotbed of protests not just over the Vietnam War but also around the makeup of curricula and faculty and the overall campus culture. Some elements in today’s situation—changes in social mores, shifts in communications technology, upheaval associated with US involvement in a foreign war—are familiar, but other elements are new. Today’s student body is the most diverse in our nation’s history. That’s wonderful and a strength, but it also makes it harder to find common ground.

→Higher education’s role: Universities should be the engines of democracy. They can prepare students for being citizens, and they can model how democracy should work, both in the classroom and for the larger society. Democracy requires two fundamental things that universities can supply: a willingness to question the status quo and the production and dissemination of new knowledge.

→A liberal education: Every US student, at least in high school, should have access to a liberal education. To heal our democracy, we need to reflect critically on how we live now and how we want to live in the future. When I ask people who work in technology which college class they most remember, it’s usually a course about Shakespeare or a topic in anthropology. Those classes made them look at the world in a new way.

Rashawn Ray

Vice-president of the Anti-Black Racism Initiative and professor of sociology at the University of Maryland and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution

→Higher education’s response: As academics, we must react faster when problems occur in our democracy. The failure to do so has led Gen Z to rely on amateur communicators found on social media. We can’t sit in the ivory tower and assume people will come to us. Academics must step outside their comfort zone and actively engage with the public. We need to write more op-eds. We must provide insights about what happens to a society under dictatorship.

→A plurality of viewpoints: Higher education does a good job presenting a range of perspectives. There’s an assumption that colleges and universities are overwhelmingly liberal, but that has not been my experience. There’s space for politically conservative students, and I often hear a lot of conservative rhetoric. However, the political ideology scale in the US has shifted. The right is much further to the right, so viewpoints in the academy that students and the public once saw as extremely conservative are now seen as conservative. Views that were once labeled conservative are now regarded by political pundits as centrist, and so forth. This has led to the misperception that there are few conservative voices in the academy.

→Political attacks on higher education: Higher education is now a target because the right wing understands that if you can control the flow of information, you can control people’s minds and their behavior, especially in terms of what they’ll support and who they’ll vote for. In my experience, when students learn about inequality in our country, they’re more likely to lean toward the policies of the Democratic Party. That’s why Texas legislators passed a law restricting how teachers could talk about racism and slavery in the classroom. That’s why Florida eliminated sociology as a core course at its universities, and Utah, and other states, banned diversity, equity, and inclusion programs at state institutions.

→The path forward: Higher education needs to ask, What side of this crisis in our democracy do we want to be on? People often think there are two sides, but there are three: those who want to roll back equality and progress, those who want to advance it, and those who do nothing. Too often, higher education has been in the third category, sitting complacently on the sidelines. Political attacks on higher education have had a chilling effect, especially for institutions in conservative states. We cannot allow fear to keep us from doing the right thing.

Terrance Casey

Professor of political science at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology and former executive director of the American Political Science Association’s British Politics Group

→The Gen Z perspective: US Politics have been relentlessly dysfunctional since most of today’s college students started paying attention. That makes many young people believe that democracy itself is ineffective. Higher education can respond by providing historical perspective. I tell my students that we fought a Civil War. We faced serious problems in the 1930s and 1960s. Things have been worse than they are now, and we persevered. As a political scientist, I also work to help my students understand the strengths and limitations of democracy.

→A liberal education: For a healthy democracy, students need a broad understanding of the world and the ability to interpret, analyze, and adapt to new information. I teach political science to engineering students. I tell them that the information I provide will be out of date in ten years, but they’ll be left with the ability to ask questions and think critically. That’s the value of a liberal education.

→A plurality of viewpoints: Higher education needs to hire more conservatives. In the humanities and social sciences, faculty members lean overwhelmingly in the same ideological direction. People from these disciplines are more likely to move up to administrative positions. That results in situations in which most decision-makers entirely agree with one another. We need more viewpoint diversity.

College and university presidents should publicly declare their intention to have a wider range of viewpoints on campus and follow that up with actions. They often talk the talk, but they need to do more to walk the walk. Higher education leaders need to look in the mirror and ask, Are we really doing what we’re supposed to be doing?

→A free exchange of ideas: Some people on campus no longer believe in freedom of speech. They may say they want a free exploration of ideas, but in practice, they don’t. This needs to be addressed from the top down. Campus leaders need to truly commit to freedom of speech, which, definitionally, means people will says things you don’t like or that conflict with your values or identity. There need to be boundaries for speech on campus, but those boundaries have gotten too narrow. As a result, students are thrust into a milieu in which they observe that you can only say certain things and that you’ll get slapped down—even publicly crushed—if you express other viewpoints.

Nancy Thomas

Senior advisor to the president for democracy initiatives and executive director of the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at the American Association of Colleges and Universities

→The Gen Z perspective: College and university students are disillusioned. They don’t see themselves represented in our governing systems, and they do not feel heard. Politicians are not acting on issues Gen Z cares about, like the environment and gun control.

Gen Z’s attitudes toward democracy also reflect a prevalent feeling in the country of not belonging. When we don’t feel we belong, we’re less likely to get involved.

→A liberal education: A liberal education is especially suited for learning the arts of democracy like critical thinking, agency, compromise, listening, collaborative leadership, and problem solving. In addition to the classroom, academic clubs, such as the engineering society, allow students to spend time with professors and discuss issues that might not fit within the regular curriculum. These opportunities can be especially valuable for busy students who commute and who juggle careers and families.

→Useful models: There are many creative programs that instill democratic values. For example, I know of a large public university with a center for solving public problems through dialogue. Students and faculty across disciplines work with the local community to identify and address local issues, such as hunger and homelessness. The center trains students to facilitate community discussions that lead to collaborative solutions. This approach fosters action and leadership. The center also trains faculty in discussion-based classroom teaching. Overall, the institution’s ethos aligns with best practices for leadership and collaboration.

→Higher education’s response: We must change campus climates so colleges and universities can become places for constructive conversations about US politics and democratic culture. We need classroom pedagogies, such as collaborative research or projects in which students present someone else’s viewpoint, that reinforce democratic practices. Such practices build the relationships and community that are necessary for productive and respectful discussions about controversial topics.

Like other democracies globally, the US faces growing and acute threats to democratic principles and practices. Colleges and universities need to tackle the immediate problems through education, but we’ve also lost a shared vision for the future of our democracy. I hope institutions will provide opportunities for people to come together across political and experiential divides and envision a more inclusive and thriving democracy. Campuses can be the place where people redesign democracy.

Elizabeth Matto

Director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics, research professor of democratic education, and acting director of the Center for Youth Political Participation at Rutgers University

→The Gen Z perspective: Data show that young people are demonstrating a weakening attachment to democracy. There are two primary causes for this: First, we’re seeing many indications that democracy is not functioning well in the United States. Large numbers of people are not accepting election results, and the norm of a peaceful transfer of power has been violated. Problems are not getting solved, including ones young people care about, such as gun violence. Second, Gen Z did not receive the same level of education about democracy as previous generations. We’re not born knowing what it means to be democratic citizens. We need education in civic skills and attitudes. That’s where higher education comes in.

→A liberal education: Democratic citizenship goes beyond voting—it involves the skills to self-govern, the ability to critically consume news, the capacity to engage in frank, productive, and respectful conversations, and the creativity to grapple with hard problems. Basically, the skills you gain through a liberal education are the same ones you need in a democracy. College is not just about building the capacity to pursue a profession. It’s also about building the capacity to be a well-rounded human being who can function as a democratic citizen.

→A plurality of viewpoints: The US is meant to be rooted in pluralism. To achieve a system of government that protects and celebrates liberty, you need a diversity of opinions—that’s how you find common ground. Higher education offers a critical opportunity to expose students to a range of opinions. Institutions need to create a culture in which students from different viewpoints feel they can participate in conversations. Faculty need to show that there are multiple approaches to topics and to solving problems. The college campus has always been a hotbed for controversy and for holding difficult conversations. We need to maintain that role.

→Democracy across disciplines: Educating for democracy is not just the purview of political and social scientists. All disciplines need to prepare students to be democratic citizens. Whether a student majors in engineering, business, or dance, there will be some intersection with the political process. Decisions made by democratically elected officials will affect their work. For example, civil engineering students could work with a local school to redesign their playground. This teaches them about the value of community engagement.

Mark Blitz

Professor of political philosophy at Claremont McKenna College and former associate director of the United States Information Agency

→The fundamentals: We must teach the basic principles of US government more clearly—this should happen both at the secondary level and in higher education. Students are not properly introduced to the historic reasons for US democracy or its purpose. They need to know how natural rights are connected to the Declaration of Independence and how the principles of that document connect to free markets and capitalism. Educators also need to explain the virtues of character, such as responsibility and tolerance, that are necessary to enable success within our way of life.

→A liberal education: We need to pay more attention to the great texts and also return to the joy of learning for its own sake. There’s been too great a movement away both from serious liberal education and from a thoughtful consideration of basic political and moral principles. Students need a true understanding of the political, intellectual, and moral principles that animated the founding of our country. They need to understand those principles in light of what was previously central, such as Plato’s and Aristotle’s thoughts on politics and government.

→Freedom of expression: Differences of viewpoint used to occur within a circle of practical agreement about the value of liberal democracy. We need to return to practical consensus on basic principles—education can help establish that common ground. We can then reasonably discuss a wide variety of theoretical viewpoints.

Instructors need to set clear expectations for the civility that’s necessary for open debates in the classroom. Administrators must control real threats outside the classroom. They should not allow students to occupy buildings, shout down invited speakers, or claim that a particular group of people should be ostracized or murdered. There should be penalties for these activities, including suspension and expulsion.

→The political environment: Colleges and universities have gotten used to controlling their activities without challenges from the rest of the country. But people are paying attention now. There are concerns over skewed hiring practices and about events on campus.

When people receive criticism, often the first instinct is to close ranks. The first reaction should instead be to ask, Is there a good reason for this criticism? Is it valid? Legislators are intervening, and states are creating new programs because they’re concerned that students no longer study the great works of Western thought and literature and that too many people are being shouted down—figuratively and literally.

Alison McCartney

Professor of political science at Towson University

→Democracy across disciplines: Just as students learn how to be scientists, engineers, or artists, they also need to learn how to be citizens. We must bring democracy into every major. When we teach engineering students to build a bridge, we should ask them, Why are you building a bridge? Who are you trying to serve? What are the larger implications of this project? Regardless of the major, every discipline has to operate in a larger context in order to address society’s problems.

Unfortunately, there’s a lack of incentives for educators to teach civic engagement in all disciplines. The tenure and promotion systems are not geared toward rewarding that kind of work. There’s also insufficient funding to train instructors to teach about their subject matter’s civic implications.

→A plurality of viewpoints: PhD programs don’t teach people how to teach. Instructors need training on how to handle different viewpoints in the classroom and on how to include and balance various perspectives. Institutions should include that training in doctoral programs. They should also examine who they bring in as guest speakers. Are a wide range of viewpoints presented in different public talks? Colleges and universities can model democracy by having a variety of voices dialogue on stage or in the classroom.

→A liberal education: “Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife,” John Dewey said. Liberal education is the key to strengthening democracy. Through it, we are taught to examine a variety of points of view and to challenge perspectives, including our own. This leads to a better understanding of how others think, which allows us to arrive at policies that help and support the greatest number of people.

The global perspective is also important—we can learn a lot by listening to people beyond our borders. Our democracy gains from knowing how another country has tackled a problem. We can adapt solutions that work elsewhere for conditions in the United States. Also, Gen Z is global. Their lives are on the internet—isolating within US borders is not their world. Their world is the world.

→The path forward: Higher education needs to make a sustained and resilient commitment to civic education. We could establish a central clearinghouse for the best models of civic engagement in the world. We need to connect with one another and share what works.


  • Marilyn Cooper

    Marilyn Cooper

    Marilyn Cooper is the associate editor of Liberal Education.