Feature: Civic Education in a Time of Crisis

Brian Murphy, President, De Anza College

On March 14, 2018, students at De Anza College joined high school students in a walkout protesting gun violence. Many among our faculty and students joined the earliest protests against the proposed Muslim travel ban, demonstrated their solidarity with the hundreds of undocumented students who are their classmates, and publicly supported our governing board’s declaration that our community college district will not cooperate with federal immigration initiatives without a valid court order or warrant.

This advocacy is growing across the country as young men and women ask themselves if their voices can matter in the emerging crisis of American democracy. But what about our colleges and universities, as institutions committed to learning, dialogue, and the development of the practical skills of democracy among our students? Are we neutral in the emerging crisis, aiming to foster open debate and the rule of reason? Or are we neutral in what appears to be a clash between two cultures: a resurgent white supremacist tendency and a newer culture of inclusion and tolerance?

If seen only through the lens of partisan politics and the traditional commitments of higher education to open debate between opposing views, the answers are straightforward and conventional: we are nonpartisan. We do not declare for a candidate or a party. We provide the space and the protocols where debate between parties and positions can be heard, policy arguments can be framed and analyzed, and the habits of critical thinking can be exercised within the framework of civilized debate. In this context, we celebrate the activism of our students and the commitments of our faculty, and we make our own positions clear on public issues—all while insisting on the need for dialogue, the respect for opposing views, and the necessary compromise of democratic culture.

This approach—nonpartisan, open to debate, and institutionally neutral except when policies directly affect education itself—depends, of course, on an understanding that (1) the protocols and practices of democratic debate are not under attack, (2) democracy itself is not up for debate, and (3) policy differences do not reveal tensions between democracy and, for example, totalitarianism.

But what if the current crisis is not narrowly about our two parties and their positions? What if the current crisis is about democracy itself?

Recent studies suggest that less than a third of millennials believe it’s important to live in a democracy, and one in six Americans think that army rule is a good system of government.[1] They join a chorus of men and women across the hitherto democratic world who are drawn to totalitarian systems and who prefer a retreat from the growing diversity that marks much of the West to a nationalistic monoculturalism.

Where does, and should, higher education stand in this struggle—one stretching from the United States to Europe, Turkey, Russia, China, India, and beyond? If our institutions’ mission statements mean anything, we are partisan in this struggle: we are on the side of a cosmopolitan diversity and on the side of social justice. Our institutions are not simply the “space for dialogue,” but rather a space for mobilization and organizing.

In this view, universities and colleges do not abdicate their commitment to reasoned debate by being clear about institutional commitments. As institutions, we can accept multiple views and yet be considerably clearer about our own. Or, put another way, we can simultaneously provide space for debate between positions and take positions as an institution. In a more benign period we might mute the latter and accentuate the former, but in this current time we need to be clearer about where our institutions stand on democratic culture and social equity.

But we need more than formal statements and declarations of virtue. We need classes and programs that support the students who march and organize; we need a renewed focus on the history of totalitarianism and the structures of government and social movements that create it. We need active support—programs, staff, and legal representation—for the most marginalized students and their communities, not because we are providing “access,” but because their communities are bearing the brunt of the violence and hatred unleashed by the current nationalistic moment. Examples of this in practice at De Anza include official statements from the president’s office in support of student activist efforts;[2] a CivicsWatch Toolkit page with links to credible and fact-checked news outlets and community partners through which students can become involved;[3] and a site dedicated to providing resources for undocumented students, with the explicit statement that De Anza is “reaffirming its commitment to treat all students with equity and respect” regardless of their immigration status.[4]

Finally, to be clear: we need to support political engagement itself, not simply “preparation” for politics. This means a significant investment in voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts, a renewed focus on current policy debates on immigration, taxation, housing and food insecurity, race and gender issues, and gun violence. Here, paradoxically, we can be intentionally and necessarily nonpartisan: we want students engaged and active,
confronting power and policy—whatever their partisan bias. In a context where democratic participation is under attack and young people are too often told to stay silent, promoting activism is a defense for democracy.

It’s easier for me to write this as the president of an institution from within the relative “safety” of California, with a governing board that supports undocumented students and DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), a governor and legislature who actively oppose the more reactionary policies and initiatives of the current federal regime, and a cultural milieu defined by diversity. The ability to take a stance and expect institutional and community support will be more difficult in campus environments where a resurgent and militant racism has governing power—so I’m not romantic about how easy the work will be or how it can emerge in all places.

Yet, the difficulty of supporting causes of social justice in higher education must not deter our work; indeed, higher education will be defined over the next decade not only by our aspirations to be schools for democracy but by our actual efforts in promoting and defending it.


[1]  Yascha Mounk, The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018), quoted in David Frum, “If America's Democracy Fails, Can Other Ones Survive?,” Atlantic, March 4, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/03/yascha-mounk-d....

[2]  Brian Murphy, Karen Chow, and Karen Hunter, “Student Walkout and March on Wednesday,” De Anza College, March 8, 2018, https://www.deanza.edu/president/message20180308.html. 

[3]  “De Anza Civics Watch,” http://www.deanza.edu/civicswatch/. 

[4]  “Resources for Undocumented Students,” https://www.deanza.edu/students/undoc-students.html.