Diversity and Democracy

Deliberative Democracy and Intercultural Dialogue: An International Agenda

The recent presidential election brought out a side to Americans that has been dormant for decades. Americans--and particularly students--studied the issues, examined the roles of race, gender, religion, and class in public life, engaged in campus conversations and public forums, ran voter registration drives, and worked for candidates. It was a level of political and educational engagement commensurate with the record voter turnout. Now, educators need to be asking, how can we sustain this enthusiasm and interest? How can higher education advance democratic aims, including citizen participation, social and political justice, and human rights, to prepare students to live in a diverse and interconnected world? These are questions for higher education globally. Conversations in America and Europe reflect a new agenda for higher education, proposing novel recommendations connected to related goals of deliberative democracy and intercultural dialogue.

The American Democracy-Building Agenda

For more than a decade, commentators on the quality of American public life have expressed concern over low levels of citizen engagement, a distant political elite, persistent economic disparity that disproportionately affects people of color and women, and divisive debates that cut along cultural lines. Despite unprecedented voter turnout for the 2008 presidential election, the National Conference on Citizenship (2008) predicts that although 25 percent to 30 percent of citizens will volunteer after the election, most will not get involved in politics or even discuss pressing social issues with friends. These indicators suggest that American civic life holds much room for improvement. At the heart of the call for renewed public participation is the question of how democracy best functions in an increasingly diverse society. A panel of experts at the Brookings Institute in October 2008 reported that the United States remains a nation deeply divided along cultural, religious, and class lines--divides that become more complex as demographics shift (Brookings Institute 2008). Americans need to find ways to build upon, not divide over, difference and conflict to develop and sustain a just society.

In July 2008, several groups on the forefront of American democracy-building--America Speaks, Demos, and Everyday Democracy--convened civic leaders, researchers, and policy makers in a conference called Strengthening Our Nation's Democracy: Taking Advantage of a Unique Time in U.S. Political History (American Speaks 2008). Their purpose was to set a national democracy-building agenda and craft recommendations for the next presidential administration. They identified three objectives: electoral reform, community building and development, and advancing deliberative democracy, a form of democracy characterized by a high level of citizen participation in an inclusive and just society where all voices matter. Colleges and universities can play a significant role in contributing to this agenda.

To some extent, these objectives are already the focus of some initiatives in American higher education. Many American universities conduct valuable research on voting and polling and encourage students to register and make informed voting choices. The civic engagement movement has made significant contributions to local community building and development. A cadre of researchers, particularly those involved in the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, is studying deliberative practices in public life. Yet on most campuses these activities remain marginalized and disconnected from core academic programs, when they should be central to academic programs. This calls for across-the-curriculum education in democratic dialogue, public deliberation and reason, democratic leadership and decision making, and political engagement--all processes that affirm individual and collective commitment to freedom, justice, and equity in American democracy (Thomas 2008). If colleges and universities are to play a strategic role in strengthening American democracy, they must reaffirm their commitment to putting the recommendations from Strengthening Our Nation's Democracy into practice. They must capitalize on the energy from the recent election to keep students engaged in today's pressing political issues and to work to overcome paralyzing cultural and ideological divides.


Several organizations in the United States work to advance deliberative democracy by providing resources and technical support to communities and, in the case of the Democracy Imperative, campuses. Information is available at the following:

—Nancy L. Thomas

The European Intercultural Agenda

A parallel effort is underway in Europe. The Council of Europe (CoE) was established after World War II to promote human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Originally a collaboration among ten nations, the CoE has grown to forty-seven European nations representing over eight hundred million people. In 1993, the CoE issued a declaration to establish new political priorities in combating racism, xenophobia, and intolerance. In 2005, the council identified "intercultural dialogue" as a means of promoting awareness, understanding, reconciliation, and tolerance, as well as preventing conflicts and ensuring social integration and cohesion. This year, the council issued a sixty-page white paper on intercultural dialogue identifying "managing Europe's increasing cultural diversity...in a democratic manner" as an international mandate (Council of Europe 2008a, 4). The white paper defines intercultural dialogue as "a process that comprises an open and respectful exchange of views between individuals and groups with different ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic backgrounds and heritage" (Council of Europe 2008a, 16). Council recommendations include promoting democratic governance, citizenship, and participation, cultivating cultural competencies, creating spaces for intercultural dialogue, and promoting intercultural dialogue in international relations.

Since 1999, the CoE's Higher Education and Research Division has worked with U.S. partners, including AAC&U, to strengthen higher education's role in promoting democratic culture (defined in the European context as citizenship, human rights, diversity, and sustainability). In 2006, this division, in partnership with the U.S. Steering Committee for the International Consortium for Higher Education, Civic Responsibility, and Democracy1, issued a declaration on the responsibility of higher education for democratic culture (Council of Europe 2006). This group convened again in October 2008 for a two-day global forum, Converging Competencies: Diversity, Higher Education, and Sustainable Democracy (Council of Europe 2008b).

At the recent meeting, one hundred and twenty-five university presidents and higher education policymakers from about twenty-five countries discussed educational goals, including integrating higher education's converging democracy, human rights, diversity, and civic missions and embedding them within daily institutional operations. Diversity's significance was apparent in this conversation. The group recognized that democracies require citizens who value diversity locally, nationally, and globally, particularly as our institutions come to reflect societies that are increasingly diverse in terms of social and ethnic origins, beliefs, and convictions. As part of its civic mission, higher education must provide students with the skills to build and maintain democratic culture and practices, human rights, justice, the rule of law, and environmental sustainability.

A Global Agenda

Although their language and context differ, the forces behind the American deliberative democracy and the European intercultural dialogue initiatives--the goals of inclusion, justice, and freedom in society and in policymaking--are similar. Both emphasize intergroup relationship building and understanding. American democracy-builders have come to understand the importance of dialogue as more than "just talk." Dialogue and informed deliberation are necessary for realizing goals of personal and cultural transformation and collective action. For colleges and universities throughout the world, the challenge is to create teaching and learning experiences that cultivate students' skills in inclusive dialogue, public reasoning, conflict negotiation, and social and political action. If recent conversations are any indicator, this is indeed a global agenda.


America Speaks. 2008. Agenda for strengthening our nation's democracy. Washington, DC: America Speaks.www.americaspeaks.org/_data/n_0001/

Brookings Institute. 2008. Demographic keys to the 2008 election. Washington, DC: Brookings Institute. www.brookings.edu/~/media/Files/events/
2008/1020_demographics/ 20081020_demographics.pdf

Council of Europe. 2006. Higher education and democratic culture: Citizenship, human rights and civic responsibility. Strasbourg: Council of Europe.www.coe.int/t/dg4/highereducation/

------. 2008a. White paper on intercultural dialogue: Living together as equals in dignity. Strasbourg: Council of Europe.www.coe.int./t/dg4/intercultural/

------. 2008b. Forum on "Converging competences: Diversity, higher education, and sustainable democracy." Strasbourg: Council of Europe.www.coe.int/t/dg4/highereducation/

National Conference on Citizenship. 2008. 2008 Civic health index: Beyond the vote. Washington, DC: National Conference on Citizenship. www.ncoc.net/pdf/civichealth2008-web.pdf.

Thomas, N. L., ed. 2008. The Democracy Imperative Catalyst Paper #1: Why it is imperative to strengthen American democracy through study, dialogue, and change in higher education.www.unh.edu/democracy/pdf/catalyst-paper1_20080612.pdf.

1: An initiative of the American Council on Education, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, Campus Compact, and the University of Pennsylvania.

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