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ISSUE 121 VOL 18 PUBLISHED 4/25/2008

Politics in education touted

By Monica Southworth
Staff Writer

Friday, April 25, 2008

A part of the semester long theme, 'Civic Engagement and the Liberal Arts' under the Provost's Global Citizenship Theme Year, speaker Elizabeth Beaumont discussed education and democracy on Tuesday April 22. She also gave a presentation about how the college experience can be adjusted to foster lifelong civic engagement.

Beaumont based her presentation on the book she co-authored, "Educating for Democracy," and the research she did over a three-year period looking on how colleges and universities prepare students to be civically engaged.

The book is about the Political Engagement Project (PEP), and addresses the issue of political apathy among younger generations.

"Her focus on education is important. Political discussion is something that I wish I had more opportunity to participate in," lecture attendee Laura Guzman '10 said.

"I liked her point that you can foster civic values in people and it's not all based on your background and the way that you were raised, and that it can be stimulated through coursework."

Beaumont paraphrased American philosopher John Dewey, saying that if there are problems with an apathetic citizenship, the elite should not take over. Instead, the response to such a problem should be education about democracy.

Dewey also said that democracy needs to be remade in every generation and that older generations need to be concerned about what is happening with the younger generations.

The PEP looks at why young people are less likely to vote by measuring how much individuals actually know, how often they vote and their involvement in political parties.

However, few solutions to the problem of voter apathy have been proposed. Beaumont's study suggests that promoting education about democracy will help to remedy current voter apathy. The main focus group of the project looks at college students and their level of political and civic engagement.

In this endeavor, the PEP looked at two aspects of citizenship among college students: quality of citizenship and equality of citizenship.

"There's a lot of research that shows this period is one of the most important times in developing political values, attitudes, and habits. If you miss reaching out to people, it's a missed opportunity and they're less likely to be involved in politics if you don't start now," Beaumont said.

The research project also asked questions about whether or not participants are politically informed. One example of uninformed voting was a story about a candidate had died during his campaign, but people still voted for him in the election, unaware of his death.

The project addresses the role colleges should play in building civic engagement and educating students about democracy. Early research done on how people become involved citizens suggests that citizens are born inclined to be participants or not. Other studies suggested that it depends on parent's political engagement and that democratic citizenship is ingrained from a young age.

When looking at this issue, the researchers asked four questions. The first question tested general political understandings and knowledge. The second question looked beyond political understanding it and surveyed students about their political skills and whether they understand how to operate within the system.

The third section looked at student's political motivation for becoming involved in politics, and the final issue was how students are involved in politics. "If students had more opportunities to take political ownership on their campus, or more opportunities on campus and within the community, they would take a greater interest in democracy," Beaumont said.

The study looked at a variety of schools, including community colleges, to research institutions, both faith and non-faith based institutions, large and small schools, selective and non-selective schools. The project surveyed students before and after the programs, and interviews with students and faculty followed.

The PEP research project found there were five elements that helped to foster participation in democracy, including the intensity of the class and how much time students spent on coursework.

The diversity of a student's peers are also a factor; if there was an array of diverse beliefs, students were more likely to do more research on the topic.

Students who have had a political internship or who have taken a current events class were also more likely to be involved. Finally, if students are taking classes where they have to create their own projects, most often the students will chose to continue their projects even after the course has finished.

Beaumont said there needs to be a reciprocal relationship between education and democracy. By establishing a relationship between the two, she anticipates that the inequality of participation will be mitigated.

Beaumont said Dewey would likely be unsurprised by this research. Dewey said the classroom is a microcosm of democracy, and that education is not a tool to make people more democratic but is part of the real world and real training ground for democracy.

"It's not enough anymore that students come away prepared of a good career. We need to educate so students understand the political process and feel competent being a participant," Beaumont said. "We want to create lifelong democratic citizenship that goes beyond one exciting election at a time."

Coming from a large university, Beaumont voiced the opinion that large class sizes do a "disservice to students" because they do not allow them the opportunity to engage in classroom discussions.

During interviews, a lot of students said that classroom discussions caused them to start thinking of themselves differently. Students said that when talking about something in class, it sparked curiosity and encouraged them to read more on the subject. "It's not as big of an issue at St. Olaf because the classes are already small," Beaumont said. She said that students must take advantage of political engagement opportunities on campus. "If being thinking, debating citizens is not apart of your undergraduate experience, you're never going to get it," Beaumont said. "College is a great place to talk to people who are politically different than yourself."

Beaumont said that taking courses that apply their knowledge causes them to become invested in them. She encouraged simulations and role-playing in classes, and advocated hands-on experiences as a means to make a difference. "Opportunities to make a difference are too few and far between, and it's important for students to help make a difference as apart of their education," Beaumont said.

To illustrate the importance of political action, she told a story about one group of students who made changes by having their cafeteria go tray-less so the kitchen used less water to wash dishes.

Beaumont is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Minnesota. She did her study at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in California. At the University of Minnesota, she teaches political science classes focusing on constitutional theory, poltical theory, civic education and engagement, as well as constitutional development. This event is funded by the Provost's Global Citizenship Theme Year.

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