Democratic Capacities and the Arts and Humanities
(Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko)
Langston Hughes pointed toward the unfulfilled promise of the United States’ most treasured legacy when he wrote, “Democracy will not come / Today, this year / Nor ever / Through compromise and fear.” Like many artistic reflections on human experience within the American experiment, Hughes’s poetry often challenges the status quo while gesturing toward the possibility of something greater. But when faculty, staff, and students read and create works like these, how do they participate in the task of realizing that greater vision? How does engagement with the arts and humanities push them not only to critique, but also to create a thriving democracy? And how can these fields help students build the capacities necessary to succeed in these tasks, particularly in today’s diverse and interconnected world?
The recent report A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future (published by the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement and available on AAC&U’s website) suggests some possible answers. Through its key recommendations for higher education, the report delineates specific steps colleges and universities can take to help ensure that American democracy flourishes. These include (1) fostering a civic ethos across campuses and cultures; (2) making civic literacy a core expectation for all students; (3) practicing civic inquiry across all fields of study; and (4) advancing civic action through transformative partnerships at home and abroad (National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement 2012, 31–33). These are critical areas of focus for all disciplines and sectors of higher education. They are also areas in which the arts and humanities have played a vital role—a role that they can and must continue to strengthen.
This issue of Diversity & Democracy explores how the arts and humanities can enhance students’ capacities for democratic participation within diverse and globally interconnected local and national communities. Through visionary thinking and on-the-ground examples, contributing authors illustrate these fields’ value in engaging students in imaginative questions of what it means to be human. They also argue for these fields’ tremendous—and too often unrealized—creative potential when applied to solving shared civic problems. In their capacities to represent but also improve the human condition, the arts and humanities can help students build their own capacities for democratic action.
Indeed, the practice of democracy is arguably both an art in itself and a measure of humanity. This issue of Diversity & Democracy invites readers to reflect on time-tested values and new pedagogies in the arts and humanities that help students, faculty, and staff engage in this practice in a diverse and interconnected world.
—Kathryn Peltier Campbell, editor of Diversity & Democracy
Hughes, Langston. (1959) 1990. “Democracy.” In Selected Poems of Langston Hughes. New York: Vintage Books, 285.
National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement. 2012. A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.