Association of colleges calls for student education on democratic participation

Wednesday, January 11, 2012 | 5:49 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — A new report from the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement suggests colleges and universities aren't doing enough to produce democratically involved graduates.

The study prompted the Association of American Colleges and Universities, an organization that includes MU and more than 1,200 other campuses, to call for a renewed commitment to increase the scope of civic learning nationwide. The association called for a curriculum that would go beyond imparting knowledge to also encouraging political participation.

Task force recommendations

As a result of their report, the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement makes five recommendations for how to increase civic knowledge and prepare students to actively involve themselves in political life after graduation:

  • Reclaim and reinvest in the fundamental civic and democratic mission of schools and of all sectors within higher education.
  • Enlarge the current national narrative that erases civic aims and civic literacy as educational priorities contributing to social, intellectual, and economic capital.
  • Advance a contemporary, comprehensive framework for civic learning— embracing U.S. and global interdependence —that includes historic and modern understandings of democratic values, capacities to engage diverse perspectives and people, and commitment to collective civic problem solving.
  • Capitalize upon the interdependent responsibilities of primary, secondary and higher education to foster progressively higher levels of civic knowledge, skills, examined values, and action as expectations for every student.
  • Expand the number of robust, generative civic partnerships and alliances locally, nationally, and globally to address common problems, empower people to act, strengthen communities and nations, and generate new frontiers of knowledge.

Source: National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement


A 60-question civic literacy exam was administered to 14,000 high school seniors nationwide by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute in 2006 and 2007. The average score was an "F" (just over 50%). How literate in civics are you?

Take the test

The call comes at a time when statistical indicators of political engagement among American students — and Americans in general — are at alarming lows.

For example, the study notes that the United States ranked 139 of 172 world democracies in voter participation in 2007.

Nick Spina, a graduate instructor in the Department of Political Science at MU, said although there are institutional reasons for low voter turnout in America, the lack of political engagement among young Americans has been happening for generations.

To counter this trend, Spina tries to take theories and concepts out of the classroom and into students' real lives in his Introduction to American Government courses. Often, this means making classroom material more relevant to students by discussing issues like student loan reform.

Last spring, Spina altered his course in the midst of the debt crisis in Congress. He had his students follow news coverage and apply concepts learned in class to the unfolding debate.

"You have to be flexible with your class," Spina said. "Things happen that can be very good learning opportunities."

Spina said such nimble instruction can pay off in increased interest about how government works among his students.

"They end up more discerning citizens, more critical citizens; they look at issues from both sides and come to an independent conclusion," Spina said.

The association of colleges calls for a civics education that reaches out to students in all disciplines and encourages participation in public life outside the classroom. Anne-Marie Foley, director of the Office of Service-Learning at MU, said the increased popularity of service-learning programs on campus indicate a generation of students who want to serve but are wary about the polarization in contemporary politics.

Foley said growth in the popularity of service learning as a requirement for an undergraduate degree at MU has been "exponential," and noted that MU's Trulaske College of Business will accept a professional internship with a nonprofit as part of its capstone requirement this spring.

"I don't have enough staff to cover all the requests," Foley said.

To improve students' familiarity and comfort level with state politics, the office created the Civic Leaders Internship Program 12 years ago. The interdisciplinary program sends undergraduates to Jefferson City for a semester to work for various agencies and combine their desire to serve with an understanding of basic government functions, Foley said. Paired with a desire to serve one's community, Foley said this knowledge produces democratically active and involved graduates.

"They become almost addicted to acting in ways that have meaning in the political system," Foley said.

Foley said public service is a key component in civic education at the collegiate level, which stresses independent thinking and a variety of academic perspectives.

"Service challenges our ideologies; it challenges our ideas about poverty; it challenges us to immerse ourselves in our community," Foley said.

The report also shows gaps in civic knowledge. At the high school level, half of U.S. states have removed a civics requirement for graduation. The Missouri State Board of Education requires one unit of credit in American history and one-half unit of American government.

Spina said that although there are standards in civics education for high school students, they often come in with different levels of accumulated knowledge. Some  lack comprehension of basic concepts.

"I ask some students about their ideology, and they don’t know what an ideology is," Spina said.

This can present a challenge in designing introductory courses at MU, where three credit hours of American government or history instruction are required for graduation.

"It makes it very difficult to teach, because I don’t know who my target audience is," Spina said.

Bill Wolff of the Columbia Pachyderm Club, a Republican-affiliated organization, said nonpartisan government instruction should begin much earlier than high school and include lessons in basic economic responsibility.

While organizations like the Pachyderm Club provide a refresher course for civic education, Wolff said, schools need to do a better job of preparing their students for active democratic participation.

"It has to start in the schools because once students get out of their primary education and into the business world, unless they've had a solid background in constitutional government and economics that is not partisan in nature, they just don't have the interest to be educated at each election time," Wolff said.

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Ellis Smith January 12, 2012 | 4:58 a.m.

It should be a snap to add such a course to the existing curricula at America's public and private technical universities and institutes. For example, we could sandwich it between Differential Equations and Thermodynamics. :)

And of course no such course would EVER be taught by any professor who is politically partisan. Perish the thought! Aren't all university professors by definition politically neutral? :)

(Report Comment)
George Cox January 12, 2012 | 6:15 a.m.

"I ask some students about their ideology, and they don’t know what an ideology is,"...

That puts the students about equal to this season's presidential hopefuls.

(Report Comment)

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