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University experts discuss ideas to restore faith in U.S. democracy

Panel probes solutions for next generation of citizen-leaders

New opinion research paints a fraught picture for democracy in the United States.

A global pandemic, racial injustice and political polarization continue to stress government at all levels. In the context of widespread reports that citizens are dissatisfied with democratic cornerstones such as fair elections, political representation, presidential powers and equal justice, experts at The Ohio State University recently discussed the causes of this loss of faith and what it will take to restore confidence in our systems.

Executive Vice President and Provost Bruce A. McPheron introduced the latest Education for Citizenship dialogue series last week. McPheron tied the university’s land-grant mission to the sustainment of democracy.

“As a land-grant university we have a special role to play in developing citizens in our communities. I say that not only because we educate the next generation of citizens and leaders, but more broadly because we’re committed to being life-long learners,” he said. “Education for citizenship in my eyes reflects all that we do as an institution in the pursuit of learning what we did not know yesterday and putting it to work in our lives tomorrow.”

Stacy Rastauskas, vice president for government affairs, was joined by fourth-year political science students Destiny Brown and Eyako Heh to moderate the discussion. Ramona Denby-Brinson, associate dean of academic affairs, College of Social Work; Margaret Ellen Newell, professor of history; and Jos C.N. Raadschelders, associate dean for faculty development, John Glenn College of Public Affairs, served as panelists.

Rastauskas began the conversation by asking why Americans are losing faith in democracy. Denby-Brinson said that, for some, these feelings are not new.

“The American democracy is always evolving, it has been evolving to incorporate people and groups that were not originally granted citizenships,” she said. “And while we can certainly point to gains that we’ve made to actualize our American democracy, the actualization process remains a dream deferred, to borrow from Langston Hughes.”

Not effectively meeting the challenges of climate change, economic equality and the growth of monopolies has undermined faith in democratic institutions, Newell said.

“It is the duty of government to represent the interest of individual Americans and be the counterweight. That is what our democratic institutions are supposed to do,” she said. “Represent us, protect us, in this global competition of interests. Our democratic institutions have not managed globalization in the interests of many Americans.”

Raadschelders said part of the issue stems from a lack of civics education. He said a better understanding of the duties and responsibilities of citizens would enhance confidence in democracy, noting that civics will be part of the new general education requirements implemented at Ohio State.

When Rastauskas asked what Ohio State could do to help restore faith in American democracy, Brown said university faculty could foster students’ development as citizens by encouraging them to be critical analysts.

“For example, in the curriculum that we learn, not just asking us what we learn about history or what a theorist said, but enabling to us be theorists ourselves,” she said.

Added Denby-Brinson, “I think universities can model democracy in key ways. We can start with access to people who have historically been left out.

“We can encourage our students into public service and public involvement – that’s another way. And I think a core role for us as universities in restoring the faith for those who have lost that faith is using the power of our interdisciplinary research to solve some of these vexing problems.”

Coming up with solutions to such pressing problems as the wealth gap, climate issues and affordable education, she said, could help restore citizens’ trust that educational institutions are committed to making important contributions to a democratic society.

Five Education for Citizenship Discussion Series events were held from Jan. 14 through Feb. 11, 2021. Videos are available on this webpage. Planning continues for possible future events, which will be announced as details are finalized.

More information is available on the Education for Citizenship Initiative website along with resources for respectful and productive dialogue.

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