Deepening democracy through the schools


The seniors in Kara McManus’s Advanced Placement government class at Kennedy High School in Bellmore were seated in a giant circle, just talking. No arguing, just talking.

The emphasis on talking is important. The students had gathered on Oct. 22, nine hours before President Obama and Governor Romney were set to spar on foreign policy, in order to discuss national security, free trade and climate change. But, unlike the presidential debate, with its emphasis on the divisions between the two candidates, these young people had to work in earnest to reach consensus on the most critical issues affecting the United States today.

And, after more than an hour and a half, the dozen and a half students came to agreement on a number of issues, while on others, they respectfully agreed to disagree.

The forum was one of dozens that Hofstra University is hosting at schools across Long Island in a program that is running in tandem with Hofstra’s town-hall presidential debate, which was held on the Hempstead campus on Oct. 16. The project is called Long Island Deepens Democracy Through Deliberation, and is administered by the university’s Public Policy Institute, of which former Mepham High School social studies teacher Bernie Stein, of Merrick, serves as associate director.

Karen McGuiness, Kennedy’s social studies chairwoman, said Hofstra has held a number of issues forums at the school in recent weeks, and she said, “We’ve been really pleased with the deliberative process.”

Stein said he is working with Hofstra history professor Michael D’Innocenzo, the Harry H. Wachtel distinguished teaching professor for the study of nonviolent change, and Hofstra’s Center for Civic Engagement on the L.I. Deepens Democracy project, which is grant-funded. The Kettering Foundation developed the deliberative format employed during the forums, and the National Issues Forum supplied the nonpartisan research material that students use to help formulate their opinions on the issues.

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