This two year multi-disciplinary seminar explored the nature of democratic thinking, how students come to learn and develop democratic thinking habits, how to teach for democratic thinking, and how best to assess and document democratic thinking processes. This seminar was co-sponsored by Elon University and the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U).

About Teaching Democratic Thinking

Many in higher education have turned their attention to teaching for civic and democratic engagement. This is evidenced, for example, by the rise in service learning and community service that schools and faculty are now including in their curriculum and co-curriculum and dovetails with the movement to make education more relevant, more engaged, and more impactful.

This move towards the teaching of civic and democratic engagement opens up many questions about what it is that we are doing when we are teaching for citizenship. While some of these questions are explored in our literature (e.g., in the service-learning literature and in Carnegie’s two recent books on the subject, Educating Citizens: Preparing America’s Undergraduates for Lives of Moral and Civic Responsibility and Educating for Democracy: Preparing Undergraduates for Responsible Political Engagement), there are questions largely left unasked.

In order to teach for civic and democratic engagement, we must know—among other things—what democratic thinking is and the relationship between the thinking of an individual and the thinking of a community. We will therefore focus our seminar on the following questions: What is democratic thinking? What role does thinking play in democracy, and in political and ethical action? What is the relationship between democratic thinking and disciplinary thinking? How can we teach for democratic thinking? Finally, we will ask: What methods of research are appropriate to explore these issues?

In her work, Elizabeth Kamarck Minnich, the Senior Research Scholar for this Elon Research Seminar, in taking up and thinking with these questions, advocates teaching a form of thinking that is “neither coerced nor coercive.” That is, she advances a view of thinking that makes people “more likely to question than to assert, inclined to listen to many sides, capable of making sensitive distinctions that hold differences in play rather than dividing in order to exclude, and desirous of persuading others rather than reducing them to silence by refuting them” (Elizabeth Kamarck Minnich, “Teaching Thinking: Moral and Political Considerations,” Change, Sept/Oct 2003, p. 19-20). What would it look like for these goals to be taken seriously in an introductory biology class, or in a literature seminar, or in an accounting course, or in a course that you teach?

Minnich gives us a hint, making the distinction between thinking and other related activities, including knowing and calculative reasoning. In describing the distinction between knowledge and opinion, Minnich writes that knowledge “gives us something we share that matters enough to have opinions about; opinions give us differing perspectives about the meanings as distinct from the truth claims of knowledge. This is why, as teachers, we try both to convey knowledge and to encourage students to develop worthy opinions about it—to think about it, without submitting to it.” To illustrate her point, she offers the following example: “The physicist has knowledge about nuclear bombs that non-scientists do not; citizens have opinions about the creation, the stockpiling, the possible uses of such bombs” (Minnich, “Teaching Thinking,” p. 22). Unlike in a course that focuses on the technical aspects of how to achieve a particular goal or result, a course that teaches for democratic thinking would, therefore, ask not only how to achieve something, but also why to do it, when to do it, and when not to.

Donna Engelmann, one of the Research Scholars for the project, offers a nice example of one way this might look. She describes the final exam for her American Philosophy class, where undergraduate students role-play a city council meeting taking up the issue of whether to allow for the licensing of an adult bookstore (Donna Engelmann, “Teaching Students to Practice Philosophy,” in Disciplines as Frameworks for Student Learning: Teaching the Practice of the Disciplines, edited by Tim Riordan and James Roth (Sterling, Virginia, Stylus Press, 2005). Each student plays a different role, and must use language appropriate in a public hearing to convince those who portray the city councilors why or why not the store should be granted a license. That is, Engelmann’s goal is for students to learn to use what they have read about pornography to convince “not me or professional philosophers, but ordinary citizens to whom they must make these arguments relevant and intelligible.”

Finally, in asking these questions about the teaching of democratic thinking, we need to be cognizant and careful about the methods we use as researchers. We need to ask ourselves, as we do this research, not only how to gather data, but how different ways of gathering data itself can/ought to be democratic; we need to keep in mind why we are doing this research and to allow the goal of doing the research to determine the method we use to do it. Not just any method will do: if we are committed to democratic thinking, only methods that foster this goal will be adequate. This means that we must use methods not focused primarily on knowledge, but must gather knowledge to form opinions. In other words, in our own research on democratic thinking, we must ask about the meaning of how we research this type of thinking, i.e., in doing this research, we must “think about” the knowledge we gain “without submitting to it.”