The Political Engagement Project

In this project, we studied 21 academic courses and co-curricular programs at colleges and universities around the United States that directly address college students’ political development. We looked at what they try to achieve, how they do it, and how well it seems to work. The results are presented in our book, Educating for Democracy (Colby, Beaumont, Ehrlich, & Corngold, 2007).

I welcome this opportunity to share some of what we learned. I will begin by explaining what we mean by the term political and why we believe it is important to distinguish political from apolitical civic engagement. I will turn next to the conditions under which we believe college teaching for political development is legitimate, stressing the importance of open inquiry and open-mindedness about political issues. In the rest of this brief paper, I will focus on the relationship of political to moral development,particularly as it relates to motivation for political engagement.

Defining Political

If we are urging educators to move beyond moral and apolitical civic development to include a focus on political learning, we need to provide at least some rough boundaries around the political domain. In the Political Engagement Project, we sought to define political engagement broadly enough to include the wide range of ways that people, especially young people, participate in American democracy, without making the definition so broad that it includes everything. The definition should allow us to distinguish between political involvement and apolitical civic involvement. With this in mind, we define political engagement to include community and civic involvement that has a systemic dimension and various forms of engagement with public policy issues, as well as electoral politics at all levels. A key criterion is that political activities are driven by systemic-level goals, a desire to affect the shared values, practices, and policies that shape collective life.

When I went with my family to see Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, young people greeted patrons outside the theater with brochures about modest changes they could make in their homes or driving patterns to help reduce global warming. Although this activity was not an effort to influence policy-makers, we would include these young people’s actions within our conception of politics because they were intended both to raise awareness of these issues and directly change other people’s behavior. In contrast, if film patrons followed a suggestion in the brochure, switching to energy-saving light bulbs, for example, we would not count that action as political unless they joined in a larger movement to shift public behavior or policy more generally.

Reprinted with permission from Journal of College & Character VOLUME X, NO. 1, September 2008.