By // Ted Mitchell
President, American Council on Education,
Former Undersecretary of Education
Ted Mitchell is the president of the American Council on Education (ACE). Celebrating its centennial year in 2018, ACE is the major coordinating body for all the nation’s higher education institutions, representing nearly 1,800 college and university presidents and heads of related associations.
Throughout our national history, the ideal of democracy has been a touchstone of what we mean when we talk about what makes America different and special. We point to a Constitution whose clarity about individual freedoms and civil rights is a ringing contrast to totalitarian limits and systematic oppression that are too common across the world. We point to a slow but steady inclusion of all Americans into the electorate and to robust political discourse spanning a wide spectrum of views. Yet as strongly as we celebrate the ideal of democracy, there is evidence that all is not well.
Participation rates in elections are declining; political debate is becoming more polarized and that polarization is being entrenched in the way we consume news, design congressional boundaries, and contest around the right to vote. Equal treatment under the law is challenged. Most critically, political communication is becoming coarser, more “zero sum,” and less interested in facts and evidence. This is not the first time in our history when what we mean by democracy has been in question, but it is certainly a moment to reflect, not just on the meaning of our democracy but upon our efforts to preserve and deepen it.
During one previous critical moment in democracy’s journey a century ago, in 1916, the great philosopher John Dewey wrote his monumental Democracy and Education. Among his many insights is the central powerful idea that governments, politics, and public policies are merely the ways that democracy is expressed. He wrote, “A democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint, communicated experience.” In other words, democracy is a way of acting and thinking with others. In Dewey’s extrapolation of this notion, both democracy and individuals benefit from contact with others whose ideas and experiences differ from their own, but not automatically. For Dewey, reflecting on experience is how the experience itself is translated into what we might think of as learning. This is where we, the people, come in.
The role of the educator, Dewey made clear, is twofold: to construct generative experiences that create the opportunity for students to work together with others; and then to help students process those experiences in ways that helped them develop insights, empathy, and skill. We have some catching up to do.
We must recommit ourselves to the task…
On our college campuses today, we see evidence that too many students from across the political spectrum have not learned the basics of the kind of associated living that animated Dewey’s notion of democracy. Many of my colleagues comment that students don’t have “practice” confronting ideas that conflict with their own, or ideas presented in a way noxious to their very identities. Indeed, it is a complex picture, according to a survey of more than 3,000 U.S. college students done by Gallup and released in April 2016 by the Knight Foundation and the Newseum Institute, the Free Expression on Campus study.
A key finding:
“Majorities of all key student subgroups oppose college policies restricting offensive political speech—but majorities also believe colleges should be able to restrict slurs and stereotypical costumes.” We need to help our students learn to navigate these waters, today more than at any time in the recent past.
To do so we will need to recommit ourselves to several principles. First, we must recommit ourselves to the idea that K-16 education is a public as well as a private good. This was a common understanding among the founders of the republic and it is ripe for a revival. Second, we must recommit ourselves to the task set out by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who said that “democracy must be learned in each generation. It has to be taught.” Finally, we must recommit ourselves to the idea that democracy demands that we engage with diverse others in ways that create opportunities for “associated living.”
Only by working together to create common experiences that cross the fault lines that divide us, in school, in colleges, in clubs and non-profits can we begin to build skills and perspectives that support democratic thinking and action. The good news is that many of our colleagues are deeply engaged in this work, from the ongoing work of the American Federation of Teachers, to retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and her work with iCivics, to the American Democracy Project organized by our higher education colleagues at the Association of American Colleges & Universities. Together we can create educational experiences that are, in Dewey’s phrase “the deepest and best guarantee of a larger society which is worthy, lovely, and harmonious.”