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School of Law

Law School to host undergraduate course on effective democracy during spring semester 
Who makes the decisions that most affect a community? And are decision makers always responsive to the needs of the people they serve? An Elon University philosophy professor wants students from six universities to consider those questions in a new course for 2008, which will be held at Elon University School of Law.

Stephen SchulmanAssistant Professor Stephen Schulman, right, organized the course for spring semester with professors at N.C. A&T State University, Guilford College, Greensboro College, UNC-Greensboro and Bennett College, along with a community activist from Greensboro. “Reclaiming Democracy: Dialogue, Decision-Making & Community Action” combines experts from several disciplines – philosophy, economics and political science, to name a few.

One way to illustrate the course theme is to consider a public policy question like school curriculum. Does it matter who decides what a child learns if you agree with the lesson plan? Is there a harm in having a single “expert” make the decision, instead of electing a school board to debate the issue?

And where do you strike a balance between inclusiveness of all voices, and the efficiency of only a few voices or even one voice, when it comes to making those decisions? These questions will be among those asked during the philosophy course, which will meet once a week throughout the spring in the Elon University School of Law in downtown Greensboro.

Students from their respective campuses and members of the Greensboro community will each meet in small groups once a week for the first four weeks of the semester.

“Isn’t democracy a process?” Schulman said. “We may not like the outcome, but we might be willing to fight for that process.”

Schulman believes that one problem with democracy in America today is the “capitalistic model” of politics. Politicians seek office by promising to address particular issues, or provide particular services, and citizens go to the polls to make a choice.

Citizens then pay little attention to what government does until they find themselves unhappy with such service. But when people grow frustrated at government decisions, Schulman said, they may feel they have no recourse in solving problems themselves.

“We equate our public and democratic lives with government, and the more we have allowed government to be driven by corporate ideas, the more alienated we feel from the democratic process, the lower are our expectations for democracy,” he said. “Who trusts politicians anymore?”

Still, he said, models of democracy exist. He cited the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Greensboro, N.C., as one such example.

A group of citizens banded together to reexamine the events of Nov. 3, 1979, where the Ku Klux Klan and a group of communist labor organizers in a “Death to the Klan” march clashed in a predominantly African-American public housing complex. Police were absent when the confrontation took place.

Klansmen killed five of the labor organizers. The men charged in their deaths were ultimately acquitted or murder by all white juries. Twenty-five years after these events, citizens from Greensboro and beyond organized an exhaustive review of that day, held public hearings, then issued a report on what led to the shootings and how the community can heal from lingering resentment over what took place.

“Democracy is about self-governing," he said. “At its most fundamental level, it is about people deciding and acting for themselves in one way or another about those things that most influence their lives, about collective decision-making and collective action.

“If we accept this view, then the work in Greensboro is democratic because it is an attempt for the people of Greensboro to uncover the truth and to act towards a reconciliation within the community, even if its elected leaders were not involved in the process.”

Elon law students and members of the community are encouraged to take the class for a $100 fee. Anyone interested in signing up for the course should contact Sherry Giles at Guilford College by calling (336) 316-2285 or by email at gileshc@guilford.edu. Elon students, faculty and staff can contact Schulman at sschulman@elon.edu or (336) 278-5697.

Members of the public are also invited to attend the course's final conference on April 26. Students will present their ideas to invited guests, providing an opportunity to foster and promote further community dialogue about the issues that will be central to the class. Further details on the conference will be announced in the spring. 

Story by Eric Townsend, Elon University News Bureau director