This article appeared in the VC Star on January 15, 2022.
Thomas Jefferson wrote cogently of the need for an educated citizenry to prop up our democratic republic. When our nation’s founders revolted against the English monarchy and established our 245-year experiment in self-governance, the responsibility of leading our new country fell upon elected representatives rather than to an inherited throne or one seized by a strongman.
At the time, this was a radical development in the world, and we take it for granted today at our peril. Evidence of an authoritarian trend in the United States and elsewhere is alarming as the last veterans of World War II die off, and societies seem to have forgotten the lessons of history.
I believe that higher education has a unique opportunity and responsibility to help preserve those 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 begin rewarding careers, we also seek to prepare them to become active participants in their communities and in our shared democracy.
What skills are essential to being 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 history and our nation’s constitutional principles. That’s why our faculty and staff press students to learn about the world beyond our community, consider alternative perspectives, discern fact from fiction and engage in meaningful and civil discourse with those who disagree.
As part of Oxnard College’s efforts to foster civic engagement, we help students connect the issues they care about with opportunities to serve. Our Sociology Club and Associated Student Government, for example, distribute food to struggling families and lead voter registration drives. Additionally, our American Sign Language (ASL) Club hosts campus workshops, fundraisers and community events to educate others about the deaf and hard of hearing community and to combat audism (i.e., prejudice against that community). Environmental Science students also volunteer to beautify riverbeds and hillsides, while our dental hygiene students provide discounted and essential services to uninsured families.
But even as we encourage community engagement and volunteerism, our nation’s hyper-partisan divisions continue to devolve into polarized factions. I often remind my friends on the political right and left that it does neither side any good simply to win today’s game if they destroy the playing field in the process. And that is what I fear many of our elected representatives and hyper-partisan activists are doing now: destroying the playing field of our republic to advance fleeting partisan goals. President George Washington’s warning against the factionalism brought by political parties seems more prescient today than at any other time since the Civil War.
If this republic is to survive, we must find a way to reason together as Americans. We do not need to agree on the most provocative issues of the day: immigration, abortion, gun violence, etc.
We must learn to reason together and advocate for our viewpoints within the framework of the U.S. Constitution. That may sound simple, but calls for the kind of political violence we saw during the attempted Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection or reversions to anti-democratic behaviors continue to grow louder and more insistent.
We in the Ventura County Community College District are proud of our graduates who go on to careers in community service — they make up Ventura County’s first responders, educators, counselors, civil servants, engineers and others.
Yet we know their contributions are only part of the story and that we must recommit ourselves to instilling democratic principles among our students on a nonpartisan basis. In this way, we will continue to shape a generation of Americans who value and advocate for our democracy here at home.
If our schools and colleges won’t help lead this charge, who will?
Luis P. Sanchez, JD, LLM, is the president of Oxnard College.