Today, as I write this “Dispatch From Europe,” which is the first in a series of seven collaborative reflections by students and faculty at Southern Oregon University (SOU), I am reminded that it was 15 years ago when terrorists attacked the United States, using hijacked airplanes to kill 2,996 people.
In remembrance of those who lost their lives on Septe. 11, 2001, and in the desire to avoid similar tragedies in the future, the need for conflict resolution, responsible global citizenship, and the spread of democracy is greater today than it ever has been. Shared challenges of the 21st Century require emerging leaders to understand how democracy is perceived, implemented, and promoted around the world. The Democracy Project (DP) at SOU is a comprehensive international examination of democracy that includes its historical evolution, the role of minority groups, and concepts such as citizenship, cultural assimilation, equality, freedom, imperialism, nationalism, security, and sovereignty.
In this election year, with the minimal amount of electoral choice, and the maximum amount of focus on non-issue-related headlines, it is easy to mock the dysfunction of national politics in the United States. Some of us take a degree of short-term pleasure in ridiculing the candidates and the system itself. The long-term effect of our collective scorn is to instill in young adults a mix of apathy and cynicism. Nothing productive can emerge from this combination.
When Southern Oregon University launched its Honors College in 2013, one of the goals was to provide opportunities for the students to transform themselves from learners into leaders. These opportunities have included a cohort-model in which students take their general-education courses together, a unique community mentor program, and co-curricular initiatives like “Take the Lead Projects” and “The Democracy Project” (DP).
In the first phase, DP participants examined foundational writings by Thomas Jefferson and Alexis de Tocqueville, among others, to see how concepts of democratic principles have developed into standardized criteria, such as the Democracy Index and articles in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
DP participants implemented comparative analysis of constitutions around the world to examine questions such as, “What is the proper role of government?” and, “In a democracy, what is the appropriate balance between individual liberties and collective human rights?” DP participants examine the threats and challenges to democracy in the 21st Century and the degree to which the promotion of sustainable democracy is valuable, if not essential.
In the past three years, DP students from SOU have traveled to Washington, D.C. (the world’s most powerful democracy), and to India (the world’s largest democracy). SOU’s DP students are now in Europe, meeting with members of parliament, civil-service and foreign-service officials, Supreme Court representatives, United States embassy officials, city council members, journalists, university professors, and college students.
The primary goal is to learn first-hand how democracy is understood, applied, and encouraged. At SOU, we foster global citizenship through outside-the-classroom experiences, particularly international travel. Expanding student understanding of global democratic approaches places at their disposal the tools necessary to solve the problems we face collectively in the coming decades.
Over the next several weeks, Southern Oregon University students who are traveling in Switzerland, Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic will be writing a series of reflections titled, “Dispatches From Europe” on particular topics relating to their studies. Their impressions and insights will center on the following themes:
• “Science, Democracy and Citizenship: International Collaborations”
• “The Syrian Immigration Crisis and its Impact on Europe”
• “The Unanticipated Similarities Between Swiss and Oregonian Forms of Democracy”
• “What Europe can learn from us, and what we can learn from Europe”
• “Youth Participation in Democracy in the Age of Social Media”
• “Female Leadership: An International Comparison”
We invite you to follow these “Dispatches” over the next few weeks, to share the students’ evolving comprehension and appreciation for the diversity of topics that directly connect to the spread of democracy and a more peaceful and prosperous future.
Dr. Ken Mulliken is executive director of the Honors College at Southern Oregon University.