Liberal Education

Pedagogy And Political (Dis)Engagement

For educators hoping to promote greater civic engagement among younger Americans, September 11 seems to have played the perversely functional role of cauterizing the consciousness of this heretofore politically disengaged generation. In the aftermath of the attack, college and high school students appear to be discussing politics and public affairs with greater frequency than ever before. They clearly are volunteering for community service in record numbers and an increasing percentage now seem to more deeply appreciate the impact that politics can have on the quality of their lives.1 In short, September 11 appears to have captured the attention and piqued the interest of younger Americans to a degree not evidenced since, perhaps, the late 1960s.

A key question, of course, is whether this heightened degree of interest in politics and public affairs is a temporary phenomenon or the beginning of a fundamental change in the significance younger Americans attach to civic engagement. The purpose of this essay is to suggest that educators can play a decisive role in transforming this teachable moment into an enduring encounter with the theory and practice of participatory democracy if we are willing to embrace some potentially far-reaching curricular and institutional innovations in regard to how we teach students about political engagement. Such steps are necessary because, ironically, existing pedagogy generally serves to promote either political disengagement or very limited forms of political participation among high school and college students.

This conclusion is an outgrowth of research that my colleagues Elizabeth Meade, Suzanne Weaver, and I have been conducting under the auspices of the Participating in Democracy Project at Cedar Crest College. The project is a three year, $1.2 million dollar initiative designed to broaden and deepen the significance students attach to the meaning of citizenship in a democratic society. For the past eighteen months, we have been working to develop educational strategies that would exploit active and experiential learning techniques to promote civic engagement and political participation among students. (An overview of the project can be found at

As part of this effort, we have spent a considerable amount of time researching the subject of political engagement and reviewing the strategies that instructors and institutions typically employ to promote this particular learning outcome. On the basis of this research, we have concluded that the civics curriculum and instructional techniques featured at many educational institutions generally fail to provide students with the knowledge, skills, and confidence needed to participate actively in the political process.

In support of this claim, I turn first to a discussion of a remarkable survey of college undergraduates conducted by the Institute of Politics at Harvard University. The significance of this research stems from the fact that it represents one of the few instances where students themselves have been asked about what colleges and universities could do to promote a greater degree of political engagement among younger Americans. The results are instructive because they provide a context for evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of existing strategies for teaching students about political engagement.

Student Perspectives on Political Engagement
The Campus Attitudes toward Politics and Public Service Survey (CAPPS) is a nationwide survey of college undergraduates conducted annually by the Institute of Politics at Harvard University.2 Initiated in 2000, the primary purpose of the survey is to gather data on student beliefs and attitudes toward politics and public service. To that end, the survey relies upon a stratified sample of the undergraduate population in the United States, controlling for factors such as gender, race/ethnicity, and class standing. In April 2000, the survey was administered via telephone interviews to 800 students; in October 2001 the sample size was increased to 1,200 respondents. In both cases, an equal number of men and women participated in the study.3

At the outset, it is interesting to note that students draw a clear conceptual distinction between political engagement and other forms of civic engagement. In both surveys, for example, approximately 85 percent of undergraduates felt that "community volunteering" was better than "political engagement" as a way of solving community problems. In addition, the surveys also report that an overwhelming majority of students believe that "volunteering in the community is easier than volunteering in politics."4

Taken in combination, these results raise the obvious question of why younger Americans feel that "community volunteering" is more effective than "political engagement" and easier to do. Is this simply another manifestation of the general sense of cynicism and indifference that students exhibit toward politics or might other factors be at work here? The CAPPS survey suggests the latter.

A unique feature of the CAPPS is a series of questions that ask undergraduates to indicate what educators could do to promote political engagement among students. The 2000 and 2001 surveys reveal that more than 80 percent of students felt that the following curricular and institutional innovations would be somewhat or very effective in terms of promoting greater political participation on the part of younger Americans:

  • If, as part of the required curriculum, public schools spent more time teaching the basics about how to get involved in politics, activism, and the issues of the day.
  • If there were an easy-to-find Web site dedicated to providing students with political information, including ways they can get involved.
  • If, as part of the curriculum, colleges created partnerships with local and state governments and offered academic credit to students who participated in public service activities.
  • If students had direct contact with more elected officials, members of government, political candidates, campaigns, and institutions.
  • If there were a student-oriented political action committee or network that focused on organizing student groups, training students for political involvement and helping young people get elected to local, state, and federal offices.
  • If students were made more aware of real-life examples of how young people can make a difference politically.
  • If the process of registering and voting by absentee ballot were made easier so that students could vote from college.


Perhaps the most striking characteristic of these responses is the emphasis they place upon the practical aspects of political participation. At the risk of oversimplification, students seem to be suggesting that their knowledge of the fundamentals of political engagement is quite limited. This inference, however, is supported by the fact that 85 percent of undergraduates expressed agreement with the following statement: "I feel like I need more practical information about politics before I get involved." At a minimum, this revelation raises the tantalizing possibility that one of the key factors underlying the political disengagement of students may be the fact that students simply are not sure how to participate in the political process.5

Pedagogies of Political Disengagement
At first blush, the student recommendations outlined above may seem unremarkable. Indeed, many might be quick to conclude that educational institutions - at all levels - already are addressing these points through their existing curricular offerings. Over the last decade, after all, citizenship training and civic engagement more generally have been among the key goals driving curricular revisions in high schools and colleges across the country. Moreover, an increasing number of institutions also have established a strong commitment to community service and/or service learning as part of an attempt to embed students in their local communities and promote civic engagement. Given all of this, a "been there, done that" reaction on the part of educators would be perfectly understandable.

However, if we look more closely at the substantive content and the analytical focus of recent curricular revisions, community service activities, and service-learning experiences, a very different picture begins to emerge. In essence, the civic engagement initiatives routinely employed by high schools, colleges, and universities are either conspicuously apolitical in nature or at least not explicitly designed to promote active forms of political participation on the part of students. Mary Hepburn's recent review (2000, 48-49) of service-learning programs in the United States highlights this somewhat surprising fact:

Thus far, in only a few researched school programs, have students learned civic participation as a means to influencing public policy, and few programs have resulted in students' gains in attitudes of political efficacy or inclinations toward citizen action. While service learning has the potential for increasing students' intentions to be informed, to be active, and to vote, the educational procedure requires that the service assignment be related clearly to political processes. It must generate an awareness of the ways in which citizens can be involved in public policy decisions. . . .To build attitudes of political efficacy and civic involvement, the service and related curriculum content should include government, political issues, and/or social action.

A somewhat similar observation has been made recently by Harry C. Boyte and Nancy N. Kari (2000, 41) in their discussion of the relationship between service learning techniques and the communitarian conception of citizenship. From a communitarian perspective, the overarching purpose of civic engagement is to promote the moral development of the individual student. In principle, such learning experiences ultimately are designed to help an individual to develop a heightened sense of personal responsibility, empathy, and, of course, respect for others.

In pursuit of this learning outcome, educators typically place students in the voluntary (i.e. non-profit) sector of civil society wherein individuals are afforded the luxury of developing a moral voice and a sense of community unencumbered by the relations of power and authority that pervade the "involuntary sectors" of public life (e.g. the workplace, politics). In doing so, however, "communitarian versions of citizenship tend to separate ideals like community, the common good, and deliberation from the messy, everyday process of getting things done in a public world of diverse interests" (Boyte and Kari, 41-42). As they point out, this approach does little to provide students with an opportunity to learn about the political processes whereby contending moral frameworks and diverse interests are reconciled within the context of a democratic system operating under the constraint of limited public resources.

The point of this discussion is not to question the intrinsic value of either community service or service learning as educational tools. Rather, the point is simply to suggest that learning experiences are not necessarily fungible across discrete knowledge domains. Put differently, community service and service learning experiences grounded in one content area (e.g. ethics) will not necessarily promote the acquisition of knowledge and skills relevant to other content areas (e.g. politics). The implications of this proposition are straightforward. If educators hope to use experiential education as a tool to promote political engagement, such experiences must be explicitly and directly embedded in curricular offerings whose content is dedicated to the art of political participation. (For a broader discussion, see Battistoni 2000.)

To do otherwise, is to risk perpetuating the very curious predicament reflected in a recent survey of college freshmen conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute. Whereas the survey found that student volunteerism had reached an all-time high, the study also reported that the level of political participation among first year students had fallen to an all-time low (Higher Education Research Institute 2000). This disconnect would seem to be a consequence of the way community service and service learning are packaged by many educational institutions. In essence, by consistently placing students in the voluntary sector of contemporary American society - to the neglect of politically meaningful types of community placement, educators have established a wall of separation between political and civic engagement. While this approach has obviously been successful in terms of promoting civic engagement on the part of individuals who otherwise might be "bowling alone," it has not prompted these same individuals to become more active participants in the political process.

Ironically, the same criticism applies in regard to the "civics" curriculum offered by most educational institutions. While the substantive content of such offerings is expressly dedicated to the subject of politics, the curriculum itself generally does not emphasize participatory democracy per se. Instead, the typical civics course is fundamentally a course on government wherein democracy is presented largely in terms of representative democracy and its corresponding political institutions (Boyte and Kari, 40). As a consequence, such courses generally are premised on a state-centered conception of citizenship wherein political engagement is framed largely in terms of a "civic duty" to participate in certain practices organized and sanctioned by the state itself (41). Voting, of course, is the exemplar of this highly atomized, formalized, and episodic approach to political participation.

The primary shortcoming of this perspective is that it reduces political engagement to a rather limited repertoire of essentially instrumental practices. In essence, the typical "civics" course teaches students that while citizens do have an obligation to participate in certain types of political activities, they ultimately are to rely on the state and their duly elected representatives to govern their communities and promote their individual welfare. Put differently, the conception of citizenship routinely emphasized in existing curricula implicitly treats citizens as consumers who are expected to "write their congressman" whenever government fails to deliver the goods - but otherwise leave the task of governance to those who know better.

This bias toward political passivity is inevitable in any curriculum that emphasizes the political institutions of a representative democracy since this form of government was, in fact, designed to distance citizens from the process of governance. This point has long been recognized by political analysts and can be traced directly to James Madison's concerns about the "factious spirit" of the people and a human nature that predisposes citizens "to vex and oppress each other [rather] than to cooperate for the common good." These points were made, most famously, in Madison's Federalist No. 10. The logic underlying Madison's institutional remedy for the problems posed by human nature is aptly summarized by DeLeon (1997):


The reason behind Madison's constitutional manipulation - of separation of powers and republican representative government - was that, at heart, he did not trust the individual citizen to understand the requirements of government and to govern in a dispassionate manner. . . . Rather than turn the government over to an unstructured, passion-prone democracy, Madison - and by extension the Constitutional Convention - chose to disenfranchise the citizen by a series of carefully designed checks and balances, as well as by a representative government that effectively tempered the individual and his "misled" enthusiasms.


The point here is not to debate the wisdom of Madison's design -- nor the decision by school districts and college faculty to consistently adopt textbooks that privilege certain forms of democratic practice over others. Rather, the point is simply to suggest that current curricular offerings in the area of civics and politics are not well-suited to broaden and deepen the significance students attach to citizenship and political engagement.

In the final analysis, the academic content and pedagogical strategies employed by educational institutions to promote political engagement among younger Americans appear to be working at cross-purposes. Community service and service learning techniques emphasize activism on the part of students, but the apolitical character of most community placements limits the impact these experiences can have in terms of providing students with the knowledge and skills relevant to the task of political participation. The typical civics curriculum, on the other hand, focuses explicitly on substantive political issues, yet its tendency to emphasize political institutions and representative democracy translates into a learning experience whereby students are socialized to accept a limited and decidedly passive approach to political participation. Hence, if instructors and institutions are to act upon the suggestions presented by undergraduates in the CAPP surveys, attention must be given to the development of pedagogical strategies and instructional techniques that will more effectively promote political engagement among students.

Toward a Pedagogy of Political Engagement
While many have attributed the growing tendency toward political disengagement among Americans - and especially younger Americans - to a mutually reinforcing set of environmental factors that predispose citizens to express increasing degrees of cynicism and indifference toward politics and public affairs, the CAPP surveys suggest that part of the problem simply may be that students lack the basic knowledge, requisite skills, and hence the confidence to participate politically. To the extent that this is the case, educators are positioned to make a decisive difference if they are willing to pursue curricular and institutional innovations expressly designed to help younger Americans learn the arts of participatory democracy.

To that end, the CAPPS survey suggests that an effective curricular design should feature a learning environment that would enable students to:

  1. learn the basic strategies and tactics of political activism, complemented perhaps with an understanding of the fundamentals of applied policy analysis.
  2. interact with practitioners who have chosen public administration, or politically meaningful forms of public service more generally, as a vocation.
  3. network with student-based organizations and citizen-based interest groups that are politically active in various issue-areas.
  4. experience political processes directly through placements in community-based institutions and organizations that deal with applied policy issues.


Another key, of course, will be the level of commitment that faculty and administrators are willing to bring to this task. It is not unusual, for example, for educators to insist that undergraduates be required to satisfy college-wide requirements in subjects such as mathematics, the natural sciences, writing, ethics, languages, and more recently "diversity." Given this, are we prepared to establish a comparable college-wide requirement in regard to political engagement? In a similar vein, would it be unreasonable or inappropriate to encourage faculty to revise and restructure the content of existing "civics" curricula such that they become biased toward a more authentically participatory conception of democracy? Finally, pre-professional programs (e.g. social work, education, nursing, business) increasingly have come to integrate an explicit commitment to political activism and civic leadership into their academic programs of study. To what extent might these innovations serve as a model for the liberal arts disciplines committed to the promotion of civic engagement and political participation?

A primary purpose of the Participating in Democracy Project is to explore issues such as these as part of an attempt to develop innovative pedagogical strategies that promote greater political participation among students. To that end, Cedar Crest College has partnered with Heidelberg College, Lesley University, and St. Thomas Aquinas College in developing the concept of a "Democratic Academy" as an organizing framework that educators can employ to institutionalize a commitment to civic engagement and political participation across disciplines and academic programs. In essence, the Democratic Academy represents an integrated educational strategy designed to broaden and deepen the significance students attach to the meaning of citizenship and participatory democracy through the creation of learning environments explicitly devoted to the promotion of political participation as a distinctive type of civic practice.

Regardless of the approach we ultimately take to teach students about the art of political participation, one thing is clear: September 11 has created a strategic opportunity for educators to experiment with new ways of addressing the crisis of political disengagement in America. To fail to seize this opportunity would be to compound the national tragedy that unfolded on that late summer day.

K. Edward Spiezio is associate professor of politics and executive director of the Participating in Democracy Project at Cedar Crest College



1. These points are suggested by the results of the 2001 Campus Attitudes toward Politics and Public Service Survey conducted by the Institute of Politics at Harvard University. See

2. CAPPS also is noteworthy because the survey is completely student-run. Each year, Harvard undergraduates are responsible for constructing and administering the instrument, analyzing the results, and publishing the findings.

3. The margin of error for the 2000 survey was plus or minus 3.45 percent at a 95 percent confidence level. In 2001, the margin of error was plus or minus 2.8 percent.

4. In 2000, 86 percent of respondents reported that they somewhat or strongly agreed with this statement; last year, 81 percent expressed the same degree of agreement.

5. Obviously, a number of factors can conspire, singularly and in combination, to produce political disengagement on the part of citizens. The literature on this subject is vast, and this research is not intended to suggest that limited knowledge about politics is more (or less) important than other contributing factors. As the next section points out, however, the curricular implications of this possibility are intriguing because at present educational institutions generally do not help students to learn how to become politically active individuals. This insight, of course, lies at the heart of the so-called critical pedagogy movement. It also informs the pedagogical strategies and instructional techniques associated with the Participating in Democracy Project.

Works Cited

Battistoni, Richard M. 2000. Service learning and civic education. In Sheila Mann and John J. Patrick. Education for civic engagement in democracy: Service learning and other promising practices. Bloomington: Educational Resources Information Center, 29-44.

Boyte, Harry C. and Nancy N. Kari. 2000. Renewing the democratic spirit in American colleges and universities: Higher education and public work. In Thomas Ehrlich, ed. Civic responsibility and higher education. Phoenix: Oryx Press, 41.

DeLeon, Peter. 1997. Democracy and the policy sciences. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 22-23.

Hepburn, Mary. 2000. Service learning and civic education in the schools: What does recent research tell us? In Sheilah Mann and John J. Patrick, eds. Education for civic engagement in democracy: Service learning and other promising practices. Bloomington: Educational Resources Information Center, 48-49.

Higher Education Research Institute. 2000. The American freshman: 2000 Executive summary.

Previous Issues