Tamra Ortgies Young and Crystal Garrett, Georgia State University
Although government and history are required courses at most colleges and universities, students often lack the motivation to participate in the democratic process because they feel that they cannot make a difference. This trend has caused civic participation to decline (Flemming, 2011). As a result, the relative engagement of young people in the political process remains below the national norm (The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, 2016). Peter Levine (2007) opines that today, young people have become dangerously less engaged. Although students have invested in some forms of civic engagement, such as protests, blogs, boycott movements, and transnational youth networks, most students lack the skills and opportunities they need to participate in politics and the knowledge to address public problems and concerns. According to Flemming (2011), “if our democracy is to last, civic participation must become central to the curriculum” (p. 39). Therefore, college advisors play a critical role in providing guidance in ways students can gain the knowledge and skills needed to fully participate as informed, active, and caring citizens in democracies around the globe.
In a healthy democracy, political participation requires a basic knowledge of politics and government structures. Colby, Beaumont, Ehrlich, and Corngold (2007) write,
Being politically informed, it turns out, is closely related to being politically engaged: implicit in the goal of having a politically informed populace is the assumption that citizens possess political knowledge and reflective judgments that are useful in guiding their voting or other political activities. This means that people have to care about or have enough interest in politics that they are willing to invest energy in gathering, interpreting, and applying relevant information. (p. 18)
According to Flemming (2011), “A democracy cannot maintain itself without active citizens, and young people cannot live up to their full potential as citizens unless they have been taught how.” Furthermore, John Dewey argues that the full development of an educated mind depends on societal experiences that help younger members to better understand the social norms and effectively participate in society. Therefore, it is essential for academic advisors to provide the knowledge and skills necessary for students to become politically engaged citizens.
Engagement is not purely a domestic matter. To succeed in the global community, students need to be apprised of international structures and global problems. Anderson (2013) suggests, “To be relevant, education must provide young people with the necessary knowledge and skills to become responsible global citizens who can take joint actions” (para. 2). What skills are the most relevant to civic life? A list of necessary competencies for the 21st century citizenship might include:
- mathematical competency;
- critical thinking;
- empathy and concern for local and global community;
- information literacy;
- leadership and persistence;
- communication skills;
- intellectual curiosity and problem solving;
- content knowledge; and
- conflict resolution, negotiation, and reasoned argument.
Such areas of knowledge provide a basis for integrating learning experiences that lead to an informed and engaged citizenry. Colby et al (2007) notes, “A person’s education is deficient if she has not developed at least a basic working knowledge of the political world in which she lives” (p. 276). However, knowledge is only part of a learning experience. Students must participate in activities that allow them to practice and become fully engaged in a learning process that is experiential in nature. Experiential learning focuses on students’ learning through active participation, interaction, and observation (Kolb, 1984). Furthermore, Fink (2003) argues that significant learning experiences provide for transformational learning events. When students learn by experience, and that experience is significant, students become more involved, engaged, and immersed in the learning experience.
Colby et al (2007) suggests that “democracy [is] fundamentally a practice of shared responsibility for a common future” (p. 25). Academic advisors are in a unique position to contribute to civic learning by tracking and recommending collegiate experiences both on and off campus that enhance civic competencies. Students placed in such learning situations have the opportunity to develop competencies to perform complex tasks by practice and integrating knowledge to develop greater fluency and automaticity (Ambrose et al., 2010). How might advisors assist students to organize their college career by including learning experiences that provide opportunities to develop essential civic competencies? By promoting the experiences below and others as good practice to each student as part of the academic plan, advisors can provide critical emphasis on building civic engagement. Academic advisors can bestow value to such experiences with sincere and thoughtful recommendations.
- Internships in Government, Nonprofits, and Media Organizations: This is an educational approach based on experiential learning. Internships in local, state, and national government; nonprofit organizations; or media companies are not just for political science majors. These placements provide hands-on experience to students inside civic-oriented organizations. Large government and nonprofit organizations provide onsite lectures, tours, and other educational experiences in addition to the internship work assignment. Do not overlook smaller placements, however. City and county government internships are often easy to arrange, as they are close at hand and frequently short staffed. Local internships can be a stepping stone to another placement or can lead to a part-time job in future academic years.
- Community Service: This approach provides assistance based on the needs in the community, which helps foster empathy, compassion, and self-efficacy. Students may volunteer at service sites with a diverse client-base that differs from a student’s life experience. Encouraging service on college-sponsored service days such as the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service can sometimes be the initiation into a lifetime of service. Academic institutions, by sponsoring such events, signal that service is an essential part of civic life.
- Service Learning: This is a hands on approach that integrates service in the community with the classroom curriculum. Students may resist signing up for service learning courses without advisor encouragement. The service learning experience provides an opportunity to apply course concepts and learn material at a deeper level of understanding. Much like with community service, service learning provides a platform for experiences that are critical to engaged global citizenship. Service learning however may be a semester-long endeavor with reflective components that lead to a lasting civic transformation.
- Part-Time Work in Community Organizations: While work must be carefully balanced with studies, thoughtful strategies in choosing part-time work venues can provide similar benefits to internships and service. Some of the same skills such as mathematical competency, critical thinking, and information literacy can be acquired by securing a part-time position during college. The added benefits include support for college expenses, professional references, and the possibility of full-time employment upon graduation. Work in a community service center or government agency provides for a better understanding of community problems and cultural diversity. While this kind of position may take a bit more research to identify and secure, it can enrich the college experience in a way that typical student employment cannot.
- Campus Clubs and Organizations: This experience allows students to participate in student organizations and also develop leadership skills, a sense of community, and practice at budgeting and finance. Students sometimes believe that they do not have time for campus organizations. Advisors can provide reasoned arguments (i.e. social, civic, practical, and credential) as to why the time investment will pay dividends now and in the future.
- Work on Political or Issue Campaigns: In the recently charged political atmosphere, students are seeking outlets for political and community participation. Working for candidates for office or for organized interest groups can provide experiences that enhance civic competencies including communications skills, problem solving, conflict resolution, and persistence. Steering students to established organizations on and off campus can provide a positive experience that provides a better chance to practice a multitude of skills as opposed to simply joining a protest. Not that academic advisors should discourage participation in peaceful protests. Indeed, the experience of participating in a large event like the 2016 International Women’s March can provide a significant experience. However, is it a significant learning experience? Participation in such a march without organizational or educational context may lead to frustration with the status quo rather than providing practice at democracy in action.
- Simulations: Students who participate in simulations of governmental processes such as Model United Nations or Model African Union will practice negotiation, communication, and problem-solving skills. These programs also provide for travel opportunities to state, national, and international competitions, giving an opportunity to interact with students from other regions and tour governmental facilities such as the U.S. Capital or the U.S. State Department.
Giving college students the opportunity to not only acquire knowledge in the classroom but outside the classroom can enhance the overall college experience. In Democracy and Education, Dewey (1966), writes, “all education which develops power to share effectively in social life is moral. It forms character which not only does the particular deed socially necessary but one which is interested in that continuous readjustment which is essential to growth” (p. 27). Additionally, Flemming (2011) argues, “A curriculum for democracy is a curriculum for civic participation . . . and it demonstrates to students and the public a belief in young people's capacity for citizenship, and it recognizes that they are the future of democracy.” (p.48).
While providing students with political knowledge through the academic curriculum is the responsibility of colleges and universities, it is also essential that academic advisors encourage students to partake in opportunities where students can acquire the skills, knowledge, and experiences that lead to informed, engaged and caring citizenship. As a society, the responsibility to encourage young citizens to participate in the political process as falls on the entire academic community. The alternative may lead to grave consequences for democracy, and for the global community.
Tamra Ortgies Young, MPA
Assistant Professor of Political Science
Georgia State University
Crystal Garrett, PhD
Associate Professor of Political Science
Georgia State University
Anderson, A. (2013, January 30). Knowledge and skills for becoming global citizens. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/education-plus-development/2013/01/30/knowledge-and-skills-for-becoming-global-citizens/
Colby, A., Beaumont, E., Ehrlich, T., & Corngold, J. (2007). Educating for democracy: Preparing undergraduates for responsible political engagement. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Dewey, J. (1966). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. New York, NY: The Free Press.
Fink, L. D. (2003). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. Retrieved from http://www.unl.edu/philosophy/[L._Dee_Fink]_Creating_Significant_Learning_Experi(BookZZ.org).pdf
Flemming, L. (2011). Civic participation: A curriculum for democracy. American Secondary Education, 40(1), 39-50.
Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Levin, P. (2007). The future of democracy: Developing the next generation of citizens. Medford, MA: Tufts University.
The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. (2016, November 9). An estimated 24 million young people voted in 2016 election. Retrieved from http://civicyouth.org/an-estimated-24-million-young-people-vote-in-2016-election/
Cite this article using APA style as: Ortgies Young, T., & Garrett, C. (2017, December). Advising for democracy: Preparing student for informed, active, and caring citizenship. Academic Advising Today, 40(4). Retrieved from [insert url here]