Inspiring Engaged Citizens
A group of Widener University students, led by Dr. Jim Vike, associate professor of political science, are on what some might call a ‘mission impossible’ in this election cycle: promoting civil political discourse.
The 13 students in Vike’s Engaged Citizenship course have spent the fall semester discussing the rights and responsibilities of U.S. citizens and what it means to be ‘engaged.’ Voting naturally comes up as the course runs concurrently with the presidential election.
“We often lament that young people don’t vote or don’t seem to care about politics, while simultaneously decrying a loss of civility in political discourse. Could it be that these two things are related?” Vike asked, looking for answers in his research.
Not surprisingly, he found a relationship between high polarization levels and high political participation rates. However, he also found that many citizens are capable of high levels of engaged citizenship without exhibiting polarizing viewpoints or behavior.
These findings helped him structure the Engaged Citizenship course, which encourages students to discuss the election, and what are often hot-button political issues, in a civilized manner.
“Dr. Vike tells us how to think about this election, not what to think,” said Hunter Romach, a freshman political science major. “We get the facts about an issue, we explore how both sides and the middle view the issue, and then we can form our own opinion about it.”
After viewing “Bring it to the Table,” the class championed the “table talks” concept in the movie, positioning one student in Vike’s class across from another outside of the class. The goal was to engage the greater Widener community in thoughtful political dialogue.
“The main goal is to try and get people comfortable in sharing their beliefs. I think people see the state of this election and get turned off,” said sophomore political science major Elexis Kenny.
Vike and his students also aimed to create a comfortable, accepting environment at two Debate Watch events, which they organized with Widener’s Political Engagement Committee. Following the presidential debates, Vike turned off the televisions to avoid the “spin” and encouraged attendees to stay for discussions around the issues led by trained faculty, staff, and students.
Romach, who served as a group facilitator, said that he received direction to aim for inclusivity.
“The best thing we can do to create change is to bring people together, to encourage people to talk in a reasonable way so that they understand and respect one another,” he said. “When people do that, they can work together much better.”