Elon panelists discuss the ‘price of democracy’

Civic engagement experts examined why younger Americans aren’t participating like they once did in service & the democratic process.


Elon University’s top faculty, staff and student proponents of civic engagement on Wednesday probed reasons for a small decline in community interaction and service at a time when interest in the democratic process is also beginning to wane among young Americans.

Co-hosted by the student-run Politics Forum and the university’s Center for Leadership, the Yeager Recital Hall discussion, “What Is The Price Of Democracy? Forum Discussion On Democratic Engagement in Higher Education,” preceded the first presidential debate of the 2012 general election season.

Professor Laura Roselle in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration moderated the program. “We tend to celebrate democracy and say, ‘Democracy is wonderful!’” Roselle said. “To have a title for a program like ‘The Price of Democracy’ … What does it cost? What price do we have to pay? That’s an interesting question to discuss.”

Panelists included:

Bud Warner, a professor of human service studies
Steven Mencarini, director of Elon University’s Center for Leadership
Mary Morrison, director of the Kernodle Center for Service Learning and Community Engagement
Will Brummett, a senior Leadership Fellow and a Newman Civic Fellow

In his opening remarks, Brummett challenged his audience to do more than ask questions in the classroom. “Being an Elon student requires me to make my questions ‘move,’” Brummett said. It’s not enough to go to class Monday through Friday, he added. “It’s asking questions and really taking them to the next level through your engagement.”

Morrison said it’s been important for her to share with students how overlapping issues can tangle a community. She said she’s noticed a level of impatience develop among young people at not seeing instant improvements that stem from volunteer or other service efforts.

“Whenever we talk with students about working with people in the community, we talk about how it’s messy out there,” Morrison said. “Things just really aren’t cut and dry, black and white. One of the things I struggle with as a citizen is that these issues we’re grappling with in this country are not soundbite issues. They’re really complex with many different ways we could approach them, but we don’t seem to have very much patience.”

Why else don’t young people get involved in civic life and service work as frequently as they once did? One panelist said that some personal connections are starting to weaken thanks to technology.

“We become disengaged with our community. Whereas before you walked to the corner store, you now drive to Target, and you don’t interact with people. Now, if you talk with someone in the store, that’s kind of strange, and creepy!” Mencarini said. “Or we connect through social media, and really, we’re not connecting with people in our community, we’re connecting with others we already know in some way.”

Panelists said one factor that may be affecting the decline in civic engagement is the culture of learning in grade schools. Warner pointed out that with an educational focus on end-of-grade tests and multiple choice exams, many young people believe there are only “right” answers to questions. However, for most of the world’s complex troubles, there is no straightforward solution.

“The struggle of ambiguity is daunting for many people,” Warner said. “It could be that part of the disillusionment with being engaged civically is, ‘I’m not an expert. I don’t know the right answer.’ Maybe there isn’t a right answer. Maybe you get the best information you can and do the best you can, coming up with an answer that makes sense to you.”

Echoing Warner’s sentiments, Roselle said there is no excuse for students today, especially at Elon University with its resources and professors steeped in knowledge, to use ignorance of a current event or public policy issue as an excuse for not engaging it. Ask professors for recommended books, she said, or take advantage of all the library has to offer. Don’t get so caught up in activities with little lasting value.

“You have time to read,” Roselle said. “You may think you have a million meetings, but what you have to do is cut some of those meetings take the time to dive into the knowledge that people have accumulated … by reading the greatest books that have been written.”