New course teaches about democracy in the real world

June 24, 2024

In his spare time between classes, fourth-year student Gabriel Alexander Juarez ’24 plays guitar in two punk bands. The political science major started one
Gabriel Alexander Juarez performing at 924 Gilman of his bands, Raccoon Hospital, with his UC Berkeley classmates. When it was time to choose his civic engagement project for his class, Professor Darren C. Zook’s “Political Discourse in the Twenty-first Century,” Juarez was immediately drawn to writing about 924 Gilman, a Berkeley cultural landmark.

Known as the place where the bands Green Day and Operation Ivy got their start, Juarez says the space is an example of how adult mentors can interact with and affect marginalized youth within countercultural spaces.

“You see all sorts of different people in the pit. College students, middle schoolers, and parents, all dancing to the same music,” said Juarez. He conducted extensive interviews with persons involved in the project and even created a podcast episode detailing his research. “I learned a lot about the venue and the impact it has on marginalized youth. Places like 924 Gilman give youth community, mentorship, work experience, and a safe place for self-expression through music.”

Juarez is one of many students in Zook’s class who participated hands-on in the political process through a civic engagement project, a pragmatic component that matches thought with action. The course was designed, Zook says, to address what he interpreted as a sense of despair and helplessness among his students after the 2016 and 2020 elections and to show how engagement in civil and political discourse is essential to restoring trust in democratic
Professor Darren Zook institutions.

“I wanted to design a course that discussed civics in an academically rigorous and critical way,” said Zook. “This course filled what I perceived as a large and inexcusable gap in our curriculum.”

Zook challenged students to prove, rather than assume, whether democracy is the optimal form of governance. During the class, students covered various aspects of political discourse, from the role of media narratives on public perception to the effect of social media on misinformation and echo chambers.

"Democracy isn't an abstract ideal but a work in progress"

Learning about political discourse helps new leaders effectively solve problems faced by our society, say Sara Rahimian ’99 and Chris Harrelson Ph.D. ’04, who created the Discourse in Democracy Fund to support academic dialogue around democracy. In recent years, Harrelson has become concerned about the state of American democracy and young people’s ability to engage in civil discourse.

“I come from a family with a very long history in this country, and for me, the responsibility of citizenship runs deep,” said Harrelson. “This fund is something I can do to help pass on what those who came before me have provided.”

Rahimian took many courses in the humanities during her studies at UC Berkeley, including peace and conflict studies courses. As an engineering student andSara Rahimian ’99 and Chris Harrelson Ph.D. ’04 first-generation immigrant from Iran, she says these perspectives made her degree more well-rounded.

“Today, more than ever, I feel those courses taught me so much about how forces work at a systemic level for better and worse,” said Rahimian.

Rahimian and Harrelson work as software engineers at Google, a vocation they say connects to their passion to do good. During his work, Harrelson contributed to products such as Google Transit and wrote Web Browser Engineering, an upcoming book.

“Our world requires awareness and intentional engagement in driving the positive and checking the negative,” said Rahimian. “As we witnessed the weakening of our democracy in recent years, Chris and I felt that investing in educating future generations was something we could do to help.”

The course was made possible due to Rahimian and Harrelson’s matching gift challenge, in which they match any gift up to $25,000 to the Discourse in Democracy Fund each year. The couple decided to double their giving to $50,000 this year based on their excitement with the success of Professor Zook’s class.

"I am grateful for Chris and Sara's matching gift challenge for the Discourse in Democracy Fund," Berkeley Social Sciences Dean Raka Ray said. "During a time when our democracy is under threat, their partnership is important to help launch and expand the course and to engage more students in essential discussions about the future of democracy."

All perspectives welcome

Zook intentionally varied the course’s curriculum and introduced materials from a wide spectrum of ideologies. Sumudu Desilva ‘24, a recent political scienceSumudu Desilva alum who took Zook’s class, said the professor managed a difficult task: presenting a wide spectrum of ideologies in a neutral manner. “Throughout all three classes I took with him, I've never known his actual feelings on many of the sources. He's very factual.”

Zook encouraged students to converse with people with opposing views in discussion sections, said Desilva. “One of the ground rules was to be respectful to each other and their views. I became more aware of my own bias so I was able to read and become more tolerant of other views. More than one person can be right. It's not a zero-sum game. This course made me realize I'm in such an echo chamber.”

For Juarez, the course encouraged him to be a more critical media consumer. “Now, when I read something, I look at who wrote it and what biases there might be in the content. Before, I never really thought about it.”

While the course focused on American democracy, Zook said that having students from around the world made the class more comprehensive. “I have had students from the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, Japan, South Korea, and China. All of them were able to evaluate the political process in their home countries using political discourse as the lens through which to view the political process.”

Desilva says that the comparative aspect of the class illuminated aspects of U.S. democracy she hadn't fully appreciated until now.
"In one of the sections, we discussed whether it was right to allow demonstrations on campus,” Desilva recalled. “As an Asian woman who was brought up abroad, my take on it was very different from my American-born classmates. It made me realize that free speech was a protected right on campus and feel appreciation for that level of freedom, with all of the complexities involved.”

“Because political science is so theoretical, it is important that students learn how political discourse affects everyday life,” continued Desilva. “This course fills in this gap. I now see how we are cocooned in echo chambers of perceived reality and how news outlets frame the same issue differently. I really hope this course becomes a part of the political science course offerings.”

Looking forward to the coming year, Professor Zook has an ambitious desire for his class to become a required course for all UC Berkeley undergraduates, especially those outside the social sciences.

“While I view every course I teach as important, this course is special to me,” said Zook. “Education is more than just information gleaned from books — it is also about teaching students to understand the world around them and to forge their own path through it. This course does exactly that.”

You can support the Discourse in Democracy initiative by making a gift to The American Democracy Fund or by reaching out to Anya Essiounina.