Where do we go to learn to be citizens in a democracy?

By Ashley Bean Thornton

I was visiting with my friend Austin Meek (host of the fantastic KWBU program Downtown Depot) the other day and he asked me, “What’s the best thing happening at Baylor right now?”  Wow! So much to choose from…we just named our first woman president, who by all accounts will be a super-star.  We’re about to graduate another stellar class of brand new Baylor alums off to make the world a better place in all kinds of ways we can’t even imagine yet.  Baylor researchers are making new discoveries about everything from the effects of algae in the water supply, to how to detect eye cancer, to how to teach number sense to pre-k kids. I couldn’t pick the BEST thing, so I slyly answered a slightly different question: What’s MY FAVORITE thing happening at Baylor right now?

Before I reveal my answer, I want to take a little detour to consider the purpose of higher education.

College tuition is going up. Student debt is increasing.   Some people are starting to wonder if a college education is “worth it” in terms of increasing lifetime earning potential.  On another front, technology is making it easier and easier to “deliver content” in all kinds of convenient ways – perhaps much more convenient than sitting in classes for four years… I do not know what the future holds for higher education, but it will almost certainly include some big changes.  The aggravating thing about change is that it is almost always disruptive and stressful.  The good thing about change, though, is that it pushes us to circle around and think about core purposes and what we are really trying to accomplish.

What, then, is the purpose of higher education? One purpose is certainly to help people prepare for a career – a good job with good pay.   No argument there.  Just as certainly though, that is not the only purpose.  To me the “higher” in higher education, in the USA at least, is educating the citizenry of a democracy to govern themselves wisely and well.

Where do we learn to wrestle with the big questions of “truth, beauty and justice?”  Where do we learn to think about what kind of world we want to create together?  Where do we learn the skills of how to work together to create that world?  Where do we learn to listen and to present a reasoned argument instead of just yelling at each other? Where do we learn to have some empathy for our fellow humans even when we disagree with them?  Where do we learn to discuss difficult issues in a productive way?  Where do we learn to leaven our zeal for efficiency, productivity and profit with an understanding of the roles of diversity, creativity and compassion?

I don’t think we can run a democracy without citizens with this kind of knowledge and skill, and I don’t think we can take for granted that people will develop it on their own.  This kind of learning and thinking is the journey of a lifetime.  I think it is a core purpose of higher education to equip people for that journey and to give them a good running start on their way. As the form of higher education evolves, I don’t want this purpose to get lost along the way.  I want our institutions of higher ed, Baylor included, to be as creative in thinking of ways to fulfill this purpose as we are in thinking of ways to help students get the skills they need for a career.

That brings me to a terrific program that has taken root at Baylor this last year.  It’s called The Baylor Public Deliberation Initiative, “PDI” for short. PDI’s work is to “invite Baylor students, staff, and faculty as well as local community members to participate in forums about local and national issues to better understand the perspectives, possible outcomes, and trade-offs of different options.”  In other words, they set up workshops where we can practice doing democracy together. They invite not only Baylor students, but also the Waco community to participate, because part of what it means to do democracy is to do it with all kinds of different people from different stages of life, different walks of life and different life experiences.

The PDI folks have already facilitated deliberations on topics like Immigration, Campus Carry, and Climate Change.  At each deliberation participants share personal connections to the issue, have a civil discussion about the pros and cons of at least three different approaches to the issue, and then deliberate about what actions they believe they could agree to take despite differences in perspective. Doesn’t that sound like a terrific way to do democracy together?

As an extension of this work, PDI is hosting a “Civic Life Summit” that is open to the public.   On June 1 & 2, the summit will offer practical sessions designed to help us  learn the skills of citizenship.  Topics include “Living Room Conversations on Race,” “Beyond Reactions and Factions: A Pragmatic Approach,” “GRIT 101: Getting Gritty Doing Civic Engagement,” and many more.  The sessions will be led mostly by active Waco community members (including some Baylor faculty and staff) with a sprinkling of experts brought in from other communities. Registration is $95 until May 15, and a few scholarships are still available.

I love that my Alma Mater is hosting an event that focuses on civic learning, an event that invites students and the rest of us in the community to learn to be better citizens together.  Is it the best thing happening at Baylor right now? Not sure…it has lots of competition.  But, it is my favorite!  Hope to see you there.  It’s more fun to learn to be better citizens together!

 This Act Locally Waco blog post is by Ashley Bean Thornton, she works at Baylor, and helps out with Act locally Waco. She likes to walk. If you see her, honk and wave and say “hi!” 

 The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email [email protected] for more information.







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