Education for Democracy: Preparing Undergraduates for Responsible Political Engagement
reviewed by Joe Lott II - June 30, 2008
Title: Education for Democracy: Preparing Undergraduates for Responsible Political Engagement
Author(s): Anne Colby, Elizabeth Beaumont, Thomas Ehrlich and Josh Corngold
Publisher: Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco
ISBN: 0787985546, Pages: 384, Year: 2007
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Anne Colby, Elizabeth Beaumont, Thomas Ehrlich, and Josh Corngold have made an important contribution to understanding the process by which teaching and political learning can guide students to becoming engaged citizens in a pluralistic democracy. Building on their previous work in Educating Citizens: Preparing Americas Undergraduate for lives of Moral and Civic Responsibility that detailed the multidimensionality of colleges and universities approach to civic and moral development, Education for Democracy: Preparing Undergraduates for Responsible Political Engagement centers on the premise that the core tenets of political engagement are political understanding, skill, motivation, and involvement. Since the teaching and learning process related to these political tenets is the central focus of the book, the authors present compelling arguments about how academic achievement and political development are mutually reinforcing.
The content of the book is from the Political Engagement Project (PEP), a study that investigated a wide range of approaches that were considered promising educational efforts in developing key aspects of a concept the authors call responsible political engagement. This project analyzed the process of teaching and learning of twenty-one courses and co-curricular programs that met the authors six criteria of strong courses and programs that included a focus on political learning. Many sources of information were used to analyze the nature and impact of courses including surveys and interviews of faculty, program leaders, and students.
Though they acknowledge varying conceptions of citizenship in the introduction, they are careful to not promote a particular political ideology. The authors are clearly cognizant of the heuristic framework that they offer. For example, in Chapter 4, the authors discuss challenges of creating a climate of open-mindedness around political issues, and respond to criticisms of civic-related approaches in education, one of which is that the academy is more likely to propagate liberal views. To move beyond this, the authors establish a broad understanding of citizenship that includes good practices which increase possibilities for members of society to critically evaluate artifacts in ways that lead to informed political participation.
The book has three major parts. The first four chapters provide the context. The second part, chapters five through twelve, elaborates the elements necessary to cultivate responsible political engagement. This was done through a rather predictable pattern per chapter: an introduction to the relevant issue(s), summaries of the relevant research, a discussion about how particular concepts were internalized or were affected by student participation in PEP, different examples of how teachers across various institutions and courses approached teaching, and suggestions about facilitating and fostering the concept highlighted in the chapter. The final section, also the last chapter, discusses the roles that higher education can play to help young people become more politically engaged.
Many who are interested in enhancing political participation for students will find Educating for Democracy useful. The concrete examples, coherent formats, and substantive information seems as though they wer written for academic departments and committees, and student affairs professionals. Powerful examples of political engagement and its growth are shown across a range of institutions. For example PEP projects at Providence College, Wayne State University, and Mills College are highlighted. Another important contribution of this book is the various distinctions made across various civic-related concepts. For example, the authors note the importance of delineating between civic (nonpolitical) and political participation. Another example is the nuanced way that they investigated constructs like external and internal political efficacy. All of the above provided a robust framework for understanding and providing resources for enhancing political participation for young people.
One factor that was not given much attention in this book is the diverse perspectives of students based on social categories (i.e., race, class, gender). It almost seems that participants social categories were forsaken for a nationalist perspective. The authors missed an opportunity to highlight how race complicates political efficacy. It is as though the authors wrote as if students are monocultural and that their social categories are not salient issues in political development. The book tries to appeal to everyone, which ultimately leaves out the unique experiences of different types of student populations.
Despite these limitations, Educating for Democracy is an extremely useful and valuable book. For the practitioner, this book provides examples of successful partnerships between academic and non-academic units in ways that benefit all who are involved. For faculty, this book provides valuable insight into negotiating academic freedom, diversity of opinion, and standards of reasoned discourse and civility. Also, faculty will find this resource useful for thinking about how their perspectives are informed by their status as private citizens, scholars, members of a professional community, and as teachers. Finally, students will discover various ways to develop their political efficacy, political communication, and overall skills necessary for effective and engaged political involvement. Overall, this book provides tremendous value to higher education, as it provides models and frameworks for utilizing institutional resources to coalesce around educational development for all.
Colby, A., Ehrlich, T., Beaumont, E., & Stephens, J. (2003). Educating citizens: Preparing Americas undergraduates for lives of moral and civic responsibility. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.