Baylor University- Waco, Texas
Public Deliberation: A Pathway to Civic Literacy & Democratic Skill Building
The Baylor Public Deliberation Initiative (PDI), a partnership between the Office of Community Engagement & Service and Spiritual Formation, helps students develop their civic capacity for engaging in social issues and community problem-solving by hosting deliberative forums on pressing campus, community, and national issues. As Carcasson (2009) indicates, public deliberation has been shown to improve issue learning, democratic attitudes, and democratic skills. These skills are particularly relevant to our divisional goals of citizenship and our focus on leadership & cultural competence, as they foster the ability of our students to have positive and respectful conversations across difference by providing a strong framework to facilitate those conversations and to work toward collaborative action.
In 2017, we completed an assessment project examining the impact of participation in a deliberative forum. This project compiled and analyzed participant responses to a post-forum questionnaire including both quantitative data and open comments. The results from this project make a strong case for the impact that public deliberation forums have on increasing the range of perspectives around public issues and student awareness of the underlying values, benefits, and trade-offs inherent in each approach. Participating in a deliberative forum helped students develop the basic knowledge and comprehension of an issue to make informed and reasoned judgments around potential actions. In a national context of politically charged rhetoric and sound bites, this opportunity for students to critically engage and consider issues more deeply is important to developing their understanding of public issues and learning to engage in the public sphere as future leaders and as citizens. (See enclosed poster presentation for a summary of results.)
Our findings also highlight the impact deliberative forums have on participants' democratic attitudes, including a sense of efficacy, a willingness to engage and listen to individuals of opposing perspectives, learning to balance their own self-interest with the interests of the community. We saw this notably in comments that highlighted a new appreciation of the needs of minority individuals and minority perspectives, with some participants indicating that they had never considered [fill in the blank] to a later realization that in the future they had the desire to consider and to hear those perspectives. This shift is important to achieving the dream of diverse and flourishing communities and democracies, as individuals begin to consider experiences other than their own and to consider a view of community that balances the rights, values, and perspectives of all.
In addition to issue learning and democratic skills, these findings also show that deliberative forums impact the democratic skills of participants. Students practiced the skills of listening, engaging in deliberative conversation (versus debate, argument, or persuasion), and learned to communicate and reason together. Throughout the qualitative comments, students mentioned listening as a key component to all three questions in terms of what they experienced, how they experienced it, and what they plan to do differently. Other external studies have found that listening is a vital skill that is often neglected in education, so public deliberation can serve a vital role in engaging students in the practice of listening and helping them develop their listening skills. As a potential action, comments also seem to reflect an apparent desire to practice civil conversation and further develop skills that would enable them not to shy away from uncomfortable conversations or disagreement, but to engage respectfully, civilly, and productively with others. They seemed to find the deliberative process and framework helpful, as noted in the array of comments around hosting more similar conversations and forums. This civic learning confirms what we would expect based on Carcasson (2009) on the learning goals of the deliberative process and supports our divisional goals for citizenship and leadership.