The American Democracy Project is a multi-campus initiative that seeks to create an intellectual and experiential understanding of civic engagement in the United States in the 21st century. It is aimed at undergraduates enrolled at institutions that are members of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU). The project grows out of a concern about decreasing rates of participation in the civic life of America in voting, in advocacy, in volunteerism in local grassroots associations, and in other forms of civic engagement that are necessary for the vitality of our democracy. The goals of the project are: 1) To increase the number of undergraduate students who understand and are committed to engaging in meaningful civic actions by reviewing and restructuring academic and extracurricular activities, as well as the institutional culture on participating campuses; and 2) To focus the attention of policy makers and opinion leaders on the civic value of the college experience. This project uses the definition of civic engagement proposed by Thomas Ehrlich and his colleagues in civic Responsibility and Higher Education.
For some time now, commentators and critics have noted a decline in the degree of civic participation and engagement in American Life. Decreased levels of voting, reduced levels of voluntarism, and even less time spent on activities with neighbors have all been cited as examples of the decline in civic engagement of this new age. For example, in a 1987 poll of baby boomers, 77% said that the nation was worse off because of less involvement in community activities. Fifty percent of Americans in 1996 felt that we were becoming less trustworthy. In a 1999 survey conducted by Hart & Teeter, 68 percent of 18-34 year olds reported that they felt disconnected from government.
There is a growing sense of unease that something is fundamentally wrong in American society, that we have lost the sense of community that unites a nation. Ironically, in this age of hyper-connectivity with instant and global communications, commentators and scholars lament the loss of a sense of community, a sense of connectedness.
This new Age of Technology, despite its innovations, is accompanied by a growing sense of disconnectedness. Robert Putnam, a key scholar of this issue, notes that far too often, the old patterns of community and neighborhood have given way to separateness and isolation. Bridge clubs, community groups, and even casual neighborhood associations are all losing members. We are increasingly, in Putnam's memorable title, bowling alone. The danger is that our collective loss of association creates problems both for our society and for our democracy.
At the precise moment in our history when immigration is swelling the number of Americans of different ethnicities and cultures, technology, work and other factors are separating us as neighbors and citizens. For a new generation of Americans, community and neighborhood groups, associations, and organizations used to serve, along with the public schools, as agents in inculcating democratic values and ideals, linking citizens from different backgrounds and perspectives, creating a sense of collective commitment to one another, in order that we as Americans could live together effectively as neighbors, and as participating citizens in a great democracy.
The concern about a decline in civic engagement is not simply a wistful look backwards, nor is it a nostalgic yearning for a simpler time. The loss of sense of community, and the concomitant commitment to act to support of that community, reduces the effectiveness of the community to accomplish collective goals. Furthermore, it creates a downward spiral of opportunity: a reduction in groups and organizations diminishes opportunities for citizens to act for the collective good. Putnam describes the loss of participation as a loss of "social capital", a loss of the social networks that affect the productivity of individuals and groups.
In the early years of our nation, an astute observer of America, Alexis de Tocqueville, noted that associations create positive effects on participants: "feelings and ideas are renewed, the heart enlarged, and the understanding developed only by the reciprocal action of men one upon another". Organizations and groups become places where people who are different interact, where forums allow ideas to be discussed and debated, and where democratic skills-running meetings, speaking in public, writing letters, and taking a position on the issues of the day are learned.