Why university students are central to a healthy democracy

Faculty, parents worldwide need to encourage young people to become responsible citizenry

Published : 26 Jan 2022 09:51 PM

While democracies in the world are in decline, its cause is generally seen as a failure to provide better governance, that has in turn resulted in the rise of populist authoritarianism.

Democracy, to survive the onslaught of ethnonationalism and for its health and well-being, needs to provide better and balanced governance. That can be possible only with increased and uniform participation of citizens in a democratic polity.

Active citizenship implies carrying out duties and exercising rights in a balanced way while being involved in society through civic engagement.

The goal of democracies is not to maximise the efficiency but to make thoughtful decisions that balance the interests of various social groups. For balancing the varied interests, democracies also need balanced participation, not the process dominated by some with unequal influence.

Expanding political engagement

Anyone who wishes the well-being of a democratic system argues in favour of expanding political engagement to all sections of society. However, that unanimity falters when it comes to the question of students in academic campuses being engaged in global issues.

Students on the campuses can perform their active citizenship role in 

many ways — from getting involved in their local development issues t

o educating others on the values and means of democracy and its development

The usual refrain is campuses are for education and students should study. How can we keep educating youths being insulated from politics while lamenting that the quality of democracies is suffering due to the non-engagement of young citizens?

How can we expect people to vote judiciously if we prevent them from being politically engaged inside academic campuses?

The Greek philosopher Aristotle had described the human being as a ‘political animal’, endowed of having the gift of speech and with a sense of differentiating between good and evil, or just and unjust. What are the justifications then for keeping the young adults from developing their abilities?

They constitute a significant stakeholder in managing the smooth running of the democratic machine at present, but they are also the backbone of a democratic polity in the coming years. Without their active engagement in politics and society, democracy will suffer now and in years to come.

Entrenched in the system

In a democratic system, when activism is so deeply entrenched in the system, it doesn’t make any sense why the campuses should be hesitant to encourage it.

Being politically engaged doesn’t necessarily mean political activism like contesting elections, campaigning for political parties, or leading student movements.

Students can engage by keenly following the local, national, and global politics and participating in political debate and discussion. Populist authoritarianism fears a healthy dialogue and deliberation in society as it strengthens democratic norms and values.

Students in the campuses can perform their active citizenship role in many ways — from getting involved in their local development issues to educating others on the values and means of democracy and its development.

Being fluent in digital tools, young students can also play a significant role in guiding the online conversation in supporting and promoting democratic values. Student groups can keep engaged and prevent digital space from being hijacked by populist forces with divisive ideology and alternative facts.

There is no basis for assuming that being politically active makes students less in studies. A recent Campus Compact Study in the US has found out that the students with high civic engagement, on average, get higher grades in their course works, and they are also more likely to continue their studies and complete their college degrees.

The research has also shown that campus activism has several positive outcomes for the students as they continue to be more socially responsible and politically engaged in their post-student life. It teaches them critical thinking, creates identity consciousness, trains their leadership qualities, and improves their coalition-building ability.

Imparting critical thinking

The very purpose of education is to build virtues of good character and impart critical thinking and problem-solving techniques. A society with a democratic system suffers most when the educated youth trained in rational thinking remain silent or aloof when the truth gets replaced with falsehood and science with the myth by the populist forces.

When elected leaders glorify voodoo medication, what is the point of studying medicine? How could you pursue researching science when the state policy is anti-science? Is there any use of reading history when your elected leaders change it as they want to suit their politics?

Engagement of students in the academic campuses has become more urgent and, at the same time, more challenging in the current climate when democracies have become highly polarised and contentious with the rise of populism.

Populist leaders with ethnonationalism agendas find a politically engaged academic campus a threat to their total domination of political discourse in the country.

Scholarly debates and discussions are feared for exposing their narratives based on falsehood and underlying hate in society. Thus, the alienation of campuses from political reality makes it easier for populism to overwhelm democratic norms and practices in the country.

In the democratic world academic campuses need to get into democracy business and must prepare students for thoughtful engagement in this troubled time.

To stop the further downward sliding of democracies, faculty and parents need to encourage students to be responsible, inclusive citizenry.

Ashok Swain is a Professor of Peace and Conflict Research, at Uppsala University, Sweden. Source: Gulf News