Elmhurst’s yearlong examination of the democratic process and civic life features scholars, authors and public officials.
Civic engagement is the lifeblood of a democracy. An engaged public is critical if the nation is to elect sensible public officials and make wise public policy choices. But the democratic process has been stymied recently by partisanship and gridlock, which could discourage participation in the political process. With a presidential contest to play out in the year ahead, the strengths and flaws of our democratic process will be all the more evident.
This defining moment makes it a good time to take a close look at the problems and promise of democracy. In response, Elmhurst College is launching the Democracy Forum, a series of lectures that shine a light on key matters of our civic life. Perhaps discussions like these can point to the kinds of solutions that elude policymakers. The lectures also will explore issues of access—to education, to information, to economic and political opportunity—and consider whether a level playing field, or true democracy, can be achieved.
Access to higher education affects one’s ability to meaningfully participate in our democratic society and engage in civic life, says Elmhurst College President S. Alan Ray. “If you do not have the privilege of attending college—because of limited financial means, family commitments or other factors—or choose not to seek higher education, what impact does this have on your ability to effect change through democratic institutions?” Ray says.
The exploration of democracy and civic engagement marks the third consecutive year that the College has developed programming, speakers and events around a larger theme. In 2009–2010, The Poverty Project captured our efforts to explore the everyday scandal of material poverty. This past academic year, Still Speaking: Conversations on Faith, presented dialogues on faith—its varieties, contradictions and influence in the modern world. Still Speaking also marked the beginning of the centennial celebration of the graduation of Elmhurst’s esteemed alumni, theologians Reinhold Niebuhr (1910) and H. Richard Niebuhr (1912).
The inaugural Niebuhr Forum on Religion in Public Life in fall 2010 featured New York Times columnist David Brooks and drew more than 1,000 people to campus. In September 2011, journalist and author Jon Meacham will presented the keynote address for the second Niebuhr Forum, “The Content of Our Character: Race, Politics, Religion and Culture, and How Traditions Unite and Divide Us.” Other fall 2011speakers included author Michael Eric Dyson, legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, political consultant Naomi Wolf, Chicago civic leader Gery Chico, U.S. Senator Mark Kirk and Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White.
Spring 2012 speakers include book editor Wendy Wolf, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, professor and author Louis Menand, national security expert KT McFarland, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bob Woodward and federal judge and Elmhurst alumnus William J. Bauer.