“Regardless of disciplinary area, problem-solving requires us to ask questions, to be curious and open-minded, to think critically and creatively, incorporate a variety of viewpoints and work in partnership with others.”
In the following Q&A, NEJHE Executive Editor John O. Harney asks Mary K. Grant, president of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, about the institute’s work connecting postsecondary education to citizenship and upcoming elections.
(Last month, NEJHE posted a similar Q&A with Nancy Thomas, director of the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life.)
Harney: What did the 2016 and 2018 elections tell us about the state of youth engagement in American democracy?
Grant: We are seeing a resurgence of interest in civic engagement, activism and public service among young people. From 2014 to 2018, voter turnout among 18- to 29-year-olds increased by 79%, the largest increase among any group of voters.
The 2016 election was certainly a catalyst for galvanizing renewed interest. Since 2016, we have seen increases in people being more engaged in organizing platforms, messages and movements to motivate their peers and adults. The midterm elections brought a set of candidates who were the most diverse in our history, entering politics with urgency and not “waiting their turns” to run for office. One of the most encouraging findings was that those who felt most frustrated were more likely to vote.
While young-voter turnout in the 2018 election was historically high, it was still just 31% of those eligible to vote. Democracy depends on the voice of the people. And a functioning democracy depends on participation, particularly in polarized times. Senator Kennedy said “political differences may make us opponents, but should never make us enemies.” He envisioned the Edward M. Kennedy Institute as a venue for people from all backgrounds to engage in civil dialogue and find solutions with common ground.
As a nonpartisan, civic education organization, the institute’s goal is to educate and engage people in the complex issues facing our communities, nation and world. Since we opened four years ago, we have had more than 80,000 students come through our doors for the opportunity to not only learn how the U.S. government works, but also to understand what civic engagement looks like. All of us at the Kennedy Institute see how important it is to give young people a laboratory where they can truly practice making their voices heard and experience democracy; our lab just happens to be a full-scale replica of the United States Senate Chamber.
Harney: How else besides voting do you measure young people’s civic citizenship? Are there other appropriate measures of activism or political engagement?
Grant: Voter turnout is one measure, but civic engagement is needed every day. Defined broadly, activism and civic citizenship are difficult to measure. We engage in our local, state and national communities in so many ways.
Our team at the institute values reports like “Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools” that discuss how the challenge in the U.S. is not only a lack of civic knowledge, but also a lack of civic skills and dispositions. Civic skills include learning to deliberate, debate and find common ground in a framework of respectful discourse, and thinking critically and crafting persuasive arguments and shared solutions to challenging issues. Civic dispositions include modeling and experiencing fairness, considering the rights of others, the willingness to serve in public office, and the tendency to vote in local, state and national elections. To address the critical issues and make real social change, we need a better fundamental understanding of how our government works. And we need better skills for healthy, respectful debate.
Harney: What are the key issues for young voters?
Grant: The post-Millennial generation is the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in our history. Only 52% identify as non-Hispanic whites. As they envision their future livelihoods in an increasingly automated workplace, they are concerned about climate change and how related food security may affect the sustainability of daily life and they are concerned about income inequality, student debt, gun violence, racial disparities, and being engaged and involved in their communities.
The institute’s polling data indicated that interests for 18-34-year-olds were reflective of society as a whole, but gun rights and gun control, education and the economy would be among the most important as they are deciding on congressional candidates in the next election.
Young people are focused on the complex global issues that concern us all but with added urgency. A Harvard Institute of Politics Youth Poll this spring found that 18-29-year-old voters do not believe that the baby boomer generation—especially elected officials—“care about people like them.” And, they expressed concern over the direction of the country.
Harney: Are there any relevant correlations between measures of citizenship and enrollment in specific courses or majors?
Grant: In a democracy, we need all majors. And more importantly, we need students and graduates to know how to work together. In a global economy, people in the sciences, business and engineering work right next to people in the fields of social sciences. I had the privilege of leading two of the finest public liberal arts college and universities in the country. I am a firm believer that regardless of disciplinary area, problem-solving requires us to ask questions, to be curious and open-minded, to think critically and creatively, incorporate a variety of viewpoints and work in partnership with others. We need to understand how you take an idea, move it along and make it into something that can improve the common good.
Harney: Are college students and faculty as “liberal” as “conservative” commentators make them out to be?
Grant: From my own work in higher education, I can say that there is diversity of perspectives and viewpoints on college campuses, which is encouraging and exciting. Liberals and conservatives are not unique in the ability to hold on quite strongly to their own viewpoints. Anyone who has ever witnessed a group of social and natural scientists discuss research methodologies can attest to that. We all need to learn how to listen to ideas other than our own.
Harney: What are ways to encourage “blue-state” students to have an effect on “red-state” politics and vice versa?
Grant: Part of the country’s challenge in civil discourse is that we stop listening or we are listening for soundbites to which we overreact. One of the most important skills that we can develop is the ability to listen actively. It’s truly remarkable what can happen when students have an opportunity to get to know and work and learn with their peers across the country and around the world.
What we’re finding in our programs is that people are hungering for conversation, even on difficult matters. It’s similar to the concept of creating spaces on college campuses where you can intentionally connect with people. This coming fall, we’re using an award that we earned from the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania to pilot a program called “Civil Conversations.” The program is designed to help eighth through 12th grade teachers develop the skills necessary to lead productive classroom discussions on difficult public policy issues. We’re starting in Massachusetts and plan to expand to all the blue, red and purple states.
And for those coming to the institute, we convene diverse perspectives through daily educational and visitor programs where people can talk with and listen to others who might be troubled or curious about the same things you are. Our public conversation series and forums bring together government leaders with disparate ideologies and from different political parties who are collaborating on a common cause; we host special programs that offer insight into specific issues and challenges facing communities and civic leaders, and what change-makers are doing about it.
Harney: What role does social media play in shaping engagement and votes?
Grant: Social media has fundamentally changed not only how we get our information, but how we interact with each other. According to a Harvard Institute of Politics Youth Poll, more than 4-in-5 young Americans check their phone at least once per day for news related to politics and current events.
As social media reaches more future and eligible voters, and when civic education is lacking, those who depend on social media platforms are at risk of consuming inaccurate information. This underscores not only the need for robust civic education programs, but also those in media literacy.
Harney: How can colleges and universities work together to bolster democracy?
Grant: Anyone who spends time around young people or on a college campus feels their energy and can’t help but come away with a renewed sense of hope. Colleges can continue to work together and advocate for unfettered access to higher education for students in all areas of the country. More specifically, they can engage with organizations like Campus Compact, a national coalition of more than a thousand colleges and universities committed to building democracy through civic education and community development.
Harney: How will New England’s increased political representation of women and people of color affect real policy?
Grant: The increasingly diverse representation helps to broaden and deepen the range of perspectives, ideas and viewpoints that influence public policy. There is also a renewed energy that is generated and it encourages next generation leaders to get involved, run for office, work on campaigns and make a difference in their communities. The institute has held several Women in Leadership programming events that highlight the lack of gender equity and racial diversity in public office and provide opportunities for women to network and learn more about the challenges and the opportunities.
Harney: Do young voters show any particular interest in where candidates stand on “higher education issues” such as academic freedom?
Grant: Students may not be focused on “higher education issues,” per se, but they do have a lot to say about accessibility and affordability. This generation is saddled with an enormous amount of student loan debt. That is certainly one of their greatest concerns, particularly when it comes to the 2020 presidential race.
Academic freedom is important in making colleges and universities welcoming to the exchange of differing ideas, which is a bedrock of democracy. As a former university chancellor, I believe that it is essential to create an environment where we welcome a diversity of opinion. We need to model the ability to listen to and consider viewpoints that may be very different from our own. We need to show students that we can sit down with people who think differently, find common ground, and even respectfully disagree. That’s a key part of what the Edward M. Kennedy Institute is all about.