On November 4, twenty-five students, faculty, and administrators at St. Edward’s University (SEU) participated in a deliberative forum on Democracy’s Challenge: Reclaiming the Public’s Role. Organized by the SEU New College, the university’s program for working adults, the goal of the forum was to explore different ways that students can learn and practice their roles as citizens.
During the two and a half hour forum, participants explored the role of higher education in helping students to recognize their own unique contribution to our democracy and discussed ways to inspire them to become engaged citizens. Using a discussion guide prepared by the National Issues Forums Institute, participants considered three perspectives of what it would take to reclaim the public’s role in democracy.
Even though participants agreed the the university needs to provide students with opportunities for citizen engagement, the group recognized various barriers within educational institutions and within society that can prevent people from participating fully.
The lack of trust in government, the disconnect people feel with the process, the inability to talk about tough issues without polarizing around the differences, the loss of our public spaces used for public deliberation – all of these items were explored with a spirit of curiosity and respect. One of the most compelling ideas to come out of the discussion was an awareness that civic engagement in the future might look very different than what it has looked like in the past.
While it wasn’t immediately clear how dialogue and deliberation could be used more fully on campus, there seemed to be agreement that the skills would be important for SEU graduates, and that students could use these skills out in the community as they talk about issues that matter to them. New College is also considering whether or not to use this process in their required mission courses that every student takes upon entering New College. The university has already scheduled a follow up to the forum, which will be a two day Moderator Training on Jan. 8-9 on the St. Edward’s campus.
Following the event, Vicki Totten, who helped organize the event for New College faculty and students, said
I am excited about the potential of using dialogue and deliberation to help students talk about difficult issues in the classroom.
She added that deliberation might be an important foundation for any student, since in order to work on difficult issues, it is important to be able to know how to move a discussion from a debate toward true dialogue.
Another important aspect of the deliberative model is that it emphasizes the need to understand the important role that values play in forming our perspectives, an important hallmark of a St. Edward’s education.
This forum, a project of the LBJ Presidential Library was one of dozens of forums being held by all twelve presidential libraries across the country, and made possible with funding from the National Archives and Records Administration and the National Issues Forums.