Advancing democracy on our college campuses

Luis P.Sanchez

Thomas Jefferson wrote compellingly about the need for an educated population to sustain our democratic republic. When the founders of our nation revolted against the English monarchy and established our 245-year experiment of self-government, the responsibility to lead our new country rested with elected representatives rather than a throne inherited or seized by a man strong.

It was a radical development in the world then, and we take it for granted now at our peril. The evidence of an authoritarian trend in the United States and elsewhere is alarming as the last veterans of World War II die and societies seem to have forgotten the lessons of history.

I believe that higher education has a unique opportunity and responsibility to help preserve these lessons and perpetuate our republic.

One of our primary goals at Oxnard College and Moorpark and Ventura Colleges is to foster civic engagement. We not only prepare our students to transfer to excellent universities and embark on rewarding careers, we also seek to prepare them to become active participants in their communities and in our common democracy.

What are the essential skills to be an effective citizen? At a minimum, one must be able to read critically, reason logically and communicate clearly.

One must also have at least a rudimentary understanding of our nation’s history and constitutional principles. This is why our faculty and staff challenge students to learn about the world beyond our community, to consider alternative perspectives, to distinguish fact from fiction, and to engage in meaningful and civil discourse. with those who disagree.

As part of Oxnard College’s efforts to foster civic engagement, we help students make the connection between issues that matter to them and opportunities to serve. Our Sociology Club and Associated Student Government, for example, distribute food to struggling families and run voter registration drives. Additionally, our American Sign Language (ASL) club hosts on-campus workshops, fundraisers, and community events to educate others about the deaf and hard of hearing community and to fight audism (i.e. say the prejudices against this community). Environmental science students also volunteer to beautify riverbeds and hillsides, while our dental hygiene students provide essential and discounted services to uninsured families.

But even as we encourage community engagement and volunteerism, our country’s hyperpartisan divisions continue to morph into polarized factions. I often remind my political friends on the right and left that there is no point in simply winning today’s game if they destroy the playing field in the process. And that’s what I fear many of our hyperpartisan elected officials and activists are doing now: destroying the playing field of our republic to advance ephemeral partisan goals. President George Washington’s warning against partisan factionalism seems more prescient today than at any time since the Civil War.

If this republic is to survive, we must find a way to reason together as Americans. We don’t need to agree on the most provocative issues of the moment: immigration, abortion, gun violence, etc.

We must learn to reason together and defend our points of view within the framework of the American Constitution. It may sound simple, but calls for the kind of political violence we saw in the January 6, 2021, attempted insurrection or a return to undemocratic behavior continue to grow louder and more insistent.

We at the Ventura County Community College District are proud of our graduates who pursue careers in community service – they serve as Ventura County’s first responders, educators, counselors, officials, engineers, and others.

Yet we know that their contributions are only part of the story and that we must recommit to instilling democratic principles in our students on a non-partisan basis. In this way, we will continue to shape a generation of Americans who appreciate and defend our democracy here at home.

If our schools and colleges do not help lead this charge, who will?

Luis P. Sanchez, JD, LLM, is the president of Oxnard College.

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