Teachable moments: Education and the spread of democracy
Watch the UVA Democracy Biennial
The Biennial was originally broadcast September 24-25, 2021
About this video
May 22, 2019
Yoni Appelbaum, Kristina Johnson, Derek Mitchell, Dan Twining, Margot Rogers (moderator)
By Christopher Tyree
Americans generally believe that education is a key to a successful liberal democracy. Why and how best to educate citizens was the focus of "Teachable Moments: Education and the Spread of Democracy." The Enlightenment values so central to American independence meant that, "The notion of an educated citizenry has been fundamental to our nation since the beginning, even as we have expanded the notion of who citizens are," said moderator Margot Rogers, special advisor to the president for strategic initiatives at the University of Virginia.
Formal civics education begins for many Americans in seventh grade, followed by high school government classes. Complementing the formal is the education one receives simply by participating in democracy: informing yourself, getting involved, and voting. Other educational values are critical as well.
“The type of education you get is important. In a democracy you have to be able to analyze facts,” said panelist Derek Mitchell, president of the National Democratic Institute and a UVA alumnus. “Citizenship is the most important job in a democracy. To be a citizen, you need to learn how to be a citizen in some way.”
Democracies are in recession globally as citizens give in to populist and nationalist urges and regimes grow more illiberal and autocratic. Studies show that the young, too, are giving up on the pillars that have traditionally supported democracy. They feel unrepresented and voiceless, and are withdrawing form the kinds of civic engagement that breed strong democracies.
In fact, studies show that young people are more likely to protest than to vote because they feel demonstrating has more impact. “People are coming to the streets, people want to get engaged. The challenge is channeling that. How do you channel that when people are not confident in political parties nowadays or that democracy will be responsive to them or that there’s a place for them in the political process when it is being controlled by elites,” said Mitchell.
International Republican Institute president Dan Twining, also a UVA graduate, agreed. “Lots of young people are more activated and more motivated than ever but not sure that their voices are being heard in the voting booth. And the question is, how else do you mobilize to affect political outcomes?”
According to the Census Bureau, during the 2018 United States midterm elections, youth voting did increase from 20% in 2014 to 36%. But compared to other demographics, the numbers are woeful: more than 66% of people 65 and do vote.
Higher education institutions can play a key role. At the State University of New York (SUNY) where panelist Kristina Johnson is chancellor, they take September 17th, Constitution Day, seriously. They hold panel discussions with students regarding things like judicial appointments and executive privilege, and the day long event is capped with a get-out-the-vote drive. “There were actually several senate seats that flipped because of the student’s voter registration drive,” Johnson said.
Another factor in voter apathy is the loss of faith in institutions.
“Democracy is a means to an end. The end is that it has to deliver for people. People have to feel like this process is giving them opportunity,” explained Mitchell, “When people feel their expectations aren’t being met, they’ll blame the system.”
Yoni Appelbaum, senior editor for politics at the Atlantic expanded: “Our democracy is not, in fact, self-sustaining and autocorrecting. It needs continual investment in its infrastructure in order to keep it functioning smoothly.
“I think people now understand that you can’t simply tune out and assume that America’s basic institutions will function and somebody else will deal with their problems. I do think there is momentum behind the kinds of long term investments in educational infrastructure and civic participation, voting rights. I can see that each of these things is newly energized over the last couple of years.”
“This democracy thing is messy. It's hard. It takes responsibility. It takes education,” Mitchell concluded. “We have to demonstrate that democracy delivers and that democracy works.”
Key quotes from this session
Many of us assume that the robust democracy, in fact, increases with the level of education that citizens have. —Margot Rogers
If you hold half fo the population back in a democracy, it's not a democracy. You don’t get the diverse perspectives you need for democratic change. —Derek Mitchell
Strangely democracy is receding. But participation is up. People are coming to the streets people want to get engaged. The challenge is channeling that. How do you channel that when people are not confident in political parties nowadays or that democracy will be responsive to them or that there’s a place for them in the political process when it is being controlled by elites? —Derek Mitchell
Russia doesn’t have an immigration problem. There is still something to the American idea to the principles articulated by a bunch of very flawed individuals a couple hundred years ago. We’ve measured ourselves to that standard and its aspirational. It's not a standard we can ever come close to achieving but it still is a standard that is inspirational and that draws people from around the world. —Yoni Appelbaum