A Denisonian Democracy: Building Active Citizens One Meeting at a Time?

By Nathaniel Nakon

Denison students are all too familiar with the opening line of the school’s mission statement, “Our purpose is to inspire and educate our students to become autonomous thinkers, discerning moral agents and active citizens of a democratic society.” Although often mocked on campus, it carries a heavy message: a Denison education should promote thoughtful and politically active students. This begs the question “Does a Denison experience promote political engagement?”

Even though we have talked about the voting patterns of Denison students here and here, it is first worth summarizing their activity in the 2016 general election. In a survey taken in the days leading up to the election, 97.8% of Denison students surveyed reported being registered to vote, while 96.5% of those registered indicated that they had either already voted early or were still planning to vote in the election. These rates are astonishingly high when you consider that during the 2012 general election (the counts for 2016 are still being finalized) the national registration and turnout rates (for those registered) were 65.1% and 86.8% respectively. The Denison statistics are even more impressive when you compare students to those in the 18 to 24 age group, as only 49.4% the age group are registered, though 77% of them actually voted.

Denison students are engaged in a multitude of other activities, too. As you can see in Figure 1, just over 10% of students surveyed have gone so far as to work for a political campaign (4-5 times the national average), while about 88% have engaged in political discourse to argue about the candidates. These numbers are certainly something that the school should be proud of. Are they linked to the Denison experience?

 Figure 1: Political Participation of Denison Students


For many students, a college experience is the first time that they have had the freedom to explore new interests and be exposed to new thoughts and ideas, providing each student with the opportunity to make their experience unique. However, there are many aspects of a Denison education that are nearly ubiquitous across the student body. For many, this growth occurs through each individual’s educational endeavors, as well as their involvement outside of the traditional classroom setting.

In order to examine the aspects that I believe to be essential to the Denison experience, I compiled one scale measuring a respondent’s level of organizational involvement and the other measuring levels of leadership skills that students have practiced (either inside or outside of the classroom). [see note 1] Both of these factors encourage a greater degree of activity in the political arena. Students with the highest leadership engaged in .5 more political activities than those with the least; those with the most involvement engage in one more activity compared to those without any.

Figure 2:  Political Participation Climbs with Campus Involvement and Leadership Development


One could easily criticize the massive numbers of organizations at Denison covering frisbee to fellowship, singing to swimming, as merely expressions of self-interest in the Denison bubble. But Alexis de Tocqueville was right that these associations with others create “habits of the heart” and mind that are essential to the maintenance of political institutions. Working through difference, organizing schedules, making arguments to others in service of some goal beyond the self in Denison’s small groups are no different than the civic work it takes to run a complex democracy.  The results here only confirm what has long been known. The implications, though, are not automatically conferred upon paying the deposit – you have to get involved. That is, the mission statement plays out, but becoming an “active citizen of a democratic society” is not an intrinsic characteristic that comes with the Denison experience, but rather is an outcome that must be worked toward by each student.

When not writing for One Twenty Seven, Nathaniel Nakon can be found in the Knapp lab, attempting to break the world with numbers and keystrokes.


1. Organizational involvement is measured, “Which of the following activities are you involved in?” and includes the possibility to check: Varsity Sports , Club Sports , Campus Governance , Employment, Performing/ Art groups, Greek Life, Community Service, Social Justice/ Advocacy, Religious/ Spiritual Life, Cross Cultural Engagement, Other Extracurriculars. The leadership question was asked this way: “As a result of my involvement or leadership in a group, I have practiced the following skills in the past year:” Public Speaking, Leading a Meeting, Planning a Meeting, Leading discussions, Putting on a major event.

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