During two blustery days last January, a number of youth mobilization scholars and activists from across the nation convened at the Johnson Foundation Wingspread Conference Center at Racine, Wisconsin. The goal of the gathering was to discuss efforts to register and turn out young voters in the previous midterm election, and to chart strategies for the 2008 election. There was considerable excitement, perhaps even jubilation, over the apparent rise in youth voting. We had turned the corner, many proclaimed, and we had reason to celebrate. Peter Levine, of the University of Maryland, reminded the gathering, however, that while youth turnout seemed to be on the rise, a scant 25 percent of those under 30 went to the polls in 2006. In a historic midterm election, just one of four young Americans had bothered to vote.
It was a splash of cold water.
A few months earlier, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) had issued a report on the civic literacy of American college students. The report concluded that America’s colleges fail to increase their students’ knowledge about America’s history and institutions, and that students are “no better off than when they arrived in terms of acquiring the knowledge necessary for informed engagement in a democratic republic.” Not only are students not learning what they need to participate in a democracy, but the report found that graduating seniors know less than their freshman counterparts -- a phenomenon the authors of the study term “negative learning.” The nationally representative survey of over 14,000 students highlights a coming crisis in American citizenship and links low levels of political knowledge with lackluster participation in activities related to citizenship.
Part of the culpability rests in the nature of voter mobilization efforts. In the drive to register and mobilize as many young Americans as possible, and to do so at the lowest possible costs, many youth engagement organizations focus on populations predisposed to becoming engaged -- what we might call harvesting the low-hanging fruit A fundamental problem with “more-is-always-better” approach is the premium put on quick contacts. If one technique registers 20 new voters per hour, and the other just 10, the former must surely be “better.”
For most of us working in the youth engagement field - both on campuses and off - the goal is to help create better citizens, not simply new voters. Although we view registration and voter mobilization as important (indeed, the organization that we direct, the Center for Political Participation at Allegheny College, participated in a large, goal-oriented registration program in 2006), we see it as an initial step toward broader engagement and expanded civic enlightenment. Voting is not an end, but rather a beginning.
So what avenues are available to college-level instructors to create better citizens? We believe educational institutions are on the front lines of this important battle. Specifically, introductory courses in American government can provide a wellspring of education for political engagement and civic literacy. In order to maximize the potential of this course, however, there must be a frank discussion of why it is important and how traditional teaching methods often fail to inspire informed and active citizenship.
The ISI study mentioned earlier found that when colleges and universities require history, political science and economics courses, civic learning increases. The study also finds that civic learning increases when an institution is committed to excellence in teaching and pedagogical innovation.
Indeed, at Allegheny College we recently surveyed 350 instructors of college-level American government courses from across the country. Over 89 percent of respondents felt that instructors of American government should work to engage students in the political process, and a full 96 percent believed that an American government college-level course can help engage young Americans.
But achieving this potential will be no easy task. Anyone who instructs an American government course knows the challenges: large classes, a wide range of student abilities, numerous important topics to cover, and cynical and unprepared students. Our survey found the greatest challenge was a lack of student interest. What is an instructor of American government to do with this Catch-22?
We consider the results of the ISI study and our survey to be a call to arms for institutions of higher education and instructors of American government. In particular, the traditional introductory courses in American government hold the key to increasing political knowledge and engaging young citizens. Several states, such as Oklahoma, Texas and California, have mandated basic American government courses for their students, and many colleges and universities have moved in this direction. This equates to quite a broad audience (nearly 800,000 students per year) for up to 45 hours each semester. Some of these students, especially those taking the course only because it is required, are reluctant participants with little previous exposure to political institutions and processes. These students’ political leanings and habits may not be established. The American government course represents an immense opportunity for plugging students into the critical processes of democratic participation.
Political scientists and instructors of American government courses bear a particular burden, as we understand the fragile nature of democracy and the importance of representative citizen participation. Most of us in the field long ago jettisoned the behavioral, value-free approach to political science instruction. We are also the most familiar with new research and potential solutions to the disengagement problem. We have the most opportunities to reach the students who are the least engaged. Luckily for us, we are the ones teaching American government courses – and therefore the ones who have the power to make a significant difference.
We pose the following challenges to two institutions - higher education and philanthropic organizations. To our colleagues who teach American government, we urge you to enter into discussions about the importance of this class and consider requiring it for all political science majors. You may even decide to call upon your college or university to mandate the class for every student. You should also find ways to engage students in course material through active learning and service learning; encourage normative participation, such as in partisan politics; actively teach citizenship skills; and integrate participatory skills with political knowledge.
For our colleagues in philanthropic organizations, we urge you to fund the teaching of citizenship education and the teaching of participatory skills with the same passionate commitment that you fund voter registration drives.
Political scientists bemoan today’s disengaged youth, while occasionally celebrating modest increases in turnout. We decry young people’s lack of knowledge and civic skills and their lack of desire to effectuate change in their democracy. Have we succeeded in our efforts if they vote but are not engaged citizens? The solution is waiting for us in the classroom down the hall. The American government course can and should teach the next generations how to be the keepers of their own government.
Melissa K. Comber and Daniel M. Shea
Daniel M. Shea is professor of political science and director of the Center for Political Participation at Allegheny College. His most recent books include The Fountain of Youth: Strategies and Tactics to Engage Young Voters, and Living Democracy. Melissa Comber is assistant professor of political science at Allegheny.
Although we have a long way to go until the end of primary season, the turnout of younger voters has been high so far. As one of many watching CNN, and waiting patiently for our turn to weigh in, I’m impressed with those crowds of cheering college students bobbing their candidate signage. High school and college students are out in force for most all of the candidates (particularly Paul, McCain as of late, and Obama), although the youth vote leans Democratic at this moment. Journalists witness their passion as we do, with surprise and delight. For researchers who have spent our academic careers puzzling over elections, public opinion, and political communication, it simply couldn’t be a more promising start to an election year. Time will tell whether the so-called “youth vote” will sustain, build, or diminish come November. But at this point, thanks to the lack of an incumbent, some interesting candidates, YouTube, and the new structure of the primary season, scholars of political behavior and those who want to promote student engagement have many positive developments to scrutinize.
Public Service and Elections
Since the late 1960s and early 1970s, when college students were a force in both electoral politics and the shape of political culture, campuses became quieter, although certainly not silent. We have seen compelling moments of intense student political activity since then, during election campaigns and in response to American policies abroad. Students made impressive showings on campuses across the nation in the 1980s, for example, protesting U.S. involvement in Central America or pleading with their administrative leaders to re-examine investment in South African apartheid. But there is no question that campuses are quieter than they once were, with regard to national electoral politics.
This is not to say students have been apolitical. Identity politics is an important and legitimate form of political engagement, and students have participated with vigor in critical and celebratory campus efforts related to race, gender, and sexuality. And conservative and liberal students have both been admirably outspoken on matters of free speech across the nation. Students do look outward, contrary to the oft-heard complaint that they are self-obsessed or egomaniacally pre-professional. In fact, anyone who has spent significant time on campuses in the past few years knows that there has been a tremendous awakening of interest in community, with students volunteering in great numbers to support K-12 programs, environmental efforts, faith-based organizations, HIV-prevention, anti-poverty initiatives, and more. This earnest collective effort, which these days tends to start in high schools -- has now become a central aspect of campus life: Sororities, fraternities, sports teams, honor societies, and whole classes can be found tutoring, cleaning up communities, and flexing their muscles as citizens in the very best sense of that world.
We watch this student heavy-lifting in public service with respect and awe. I recall a far less impressive set of undergraduate years: My fellow students and I spent many more hours playing Frisbee with bandana-sporting dogs on the quad than we did mingling with neighbors outside the campus gates. The altruism and generosity of our students are precious, and should be encouraged and admired. But those of us who study American politics worry that all the student public service we see might not quite take the turn from humanitarianism toward electoral politics. Shouldn’t these civic tendencies somehow lead to campaign participation, voting, and policy debate, in order to have the greatest effects?
Among students, sitting aside the tremendous surge of interest in public service and the public good, is an ambivalence or even distaste for conventional politics. In my experience, with the exception of some political science majors and a few others who somehow find their way to electoral politics, what the Democrats and Republicans (local, state, or national) are up to is a real bore. In general, students find “public policy” to be mind-numbing, once they find out what it really involves: hearings, complex budget maneuvering, extended debate, long periods of inactivity, professional lobbyists, tabled bills, and often, watered-down legislation.
And we in political science don’t help much. While the texture of everyday life in the United States is determined largely by state and local governments -- so vital in taxation, public health, education, and crime control -- state and local politics research is viewed as among the less “sexy” areas of expertise in political science. A typical college or university American political science curriculum is dominated by courses on the presidency, Congress, the courts, or national media, public opinion, elections, and political behavior. We do a poor job of bringing state and local politics to our students through the curriculum, and so it is no surprise that what government does feels very far away. It is something that happens in Washington, and affects them in some abstract way that they are told matters, but feel only slightly.
What we see, then, is an odd bifurcation in students’ sense of citizenship. They feel a deep sense of belonging through their community service: They’ve worked in the soup kitchens, tutored struggling elementary school kids, cleaned up parks, and aided staff in grim mental health centers. But this activity composes only one aspect of citizenship. Commitment to place -- being a caring member of a community -- is a critical dimension of American citizenship, but so are political knowledge, the exercise of rights, and pro-active engagement in conventional elections and governance.
Can we move our students from their current understanding of citizenship as belonging and local engagement, and take them to a more complex (and, granted, often dull) form of citizenry? Can we link their local public service, humanitarianism, and intense feelings of global citizenship (even if often Starbucks-inspired) to American electoral politics -- the “meat and potatoes” arena from where U.S. domestic and foreign policy actually emerge?
We can do all these things, but only if we have students paying attention in big numbers, as we may well have in 2008. It takes work on our part and theirs, and not only through political science courses.
Making the Most of 2008
Again, it’s a long year ahead with an extraordinarily fluid political environment and many twists and turns to come. But in the meantime, I have been reflecting the sorts of venues that enable us to work best on enduring aspects of citizenship, including forging those local-national politics links with our students. Professors and administrators should do the usual things: pursue candidates to speak on campus, encourage voter registration and “get out the vote” drives, and talk with students about the election where we can. In addition, though, we must structure the discussion on campus for the longer term.
I have failed as often as I have succeeded in my attempts to focus students constructively on national campaigns. So, let me close with some rules of thumb that might be helpful in using Election 2008 most effectively:
1. Don’t organize any election event without students leading and organizing. I am embarrassed to admit how many election-oriented forums I have organized or tried to organize, with refreshments, that resulted either in non-events or in a panels of my distinguished colleagues outnumbering students in big empty lecture halls. Even on the most frenzied October election season evenings, our students are still pulled in many different directions, so don’t count on them coming to a forum even if you’ve lined up your leading campus experts and famous authors.
2. Use current media advertising as a starting point for discussion. One of the best and most enjoyable ways to discuss elections with students is to show them what’s being aired, for their critique and to spur debates. While our students are on the Internet always, they don’t sit down and watch broadcast television in real time very often, so they likely are missing the advertisements that most Americans see each evening. A format for student discussion that enables them to see what other (particularly older) voters see, works. And it’s a fine moment to pursue that ever-elusive “media literacy” we hope our students leave college with. Although Web sites like YouTube are for younger Americans, the abundance of both official campaign advertisements and political films by amateurs are a welcome bonanza for the scholarly analysis of public opinion formation and political rhetoric.
3. Polls may often be dubious and annoying, but they do engage. The reason we see so many “horse-race” polls during election years is that this quantitative discourse has become -- for better or worse -- the way media (and therefore voters) engage elections. The polls shape our discourse because we follow the journalistic lead: We too want to know who is ahead, and strategize the expectations game along with the pundits. Polls -- or a census is more likely -- of dorm floors, students waiting in bank or bank lines, and in classes, are inevitably and chronically exciting. Use them for good, and don’t worry too much. I find that students in the minority on our campuses are typically fairly vocal and proud, so I haven’t seen much of what political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann calls the “spiral of silence” (fear of isolation due to the expression of a minority opinion).
4. Capture the energy, prepare for the letdown. Even if you use Election 2008 as a teaching moment, inside the classroom or out, and achieve tremendous student engagement and passionate display, it will end in a big thud after Election Day. I have counseled many students out of post-election depression, even when their candidates won. There is a way to -- during the height of the excitement of October -- start funneling the passion into experiences that will make our students truly great citizens for the long term. Think about bringing local and state officials -- legislative staffers are particularly good at this, and are thrilled to speak on campus -- to speak with students about how the local and national politics are connected, or about the way majorities and minorities, after elections are over, shape the nature of public policy.
5. Think about talk. While we discuss the campaigns and policies of our favored candidates, we should -- without dampening discussion -- try to push our students to argue better and more effectively. This is exceedingly difficult, especially as the election get heated and students have invested time and hard work in particular campaigns. The more involved they are in a campaign, the less they want to listen to debate. But the campaign is a time when the “culture of argument” is vibrant, and we need to consider how to keep it going long after the election is over. We now have so many fine scholarly works on the pedagogy of controversy, on what makes for meaningful political discussion, and on how to teach argument. It is best to read these works before the onslaught of the fall campaigns, and to keep the enduring nature of political talk in mind, as we help our students evolve into even better citizens than we are.
Susan Herbst is executive vice chancellor and chief academic officer of the University System of Georgia. She is also professor of public policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
What would it take for the overwhelming majority of eligible U.S. college students to register, vote, and get actively involved in the November elections -- and in subsequent elections? For years, educators have bemoaned the political detachment of students -- the separation of so many from public issues that profoundly affect their lives. Too often, students have said their actions didn’t matter, or argued that the electoral sphere is so inevitably corrupt that it makes no sense to participate.
This election feels different, though. Young voters and volunteers are surging into the campaigns in numbers we haven't seen in decades. They're interested and concerned, and they want to make a difference. The question is whether we'll give them the tools they need to participate fully in a watershed election, as volunteers and voters. That means helping them register to vote, giving them opportunities to learn and exchange ideas about the issues, encouraging them to volunteer with one or more campaigns or with nonpartisan voter mobilization drives, and helping ensure that they turn out at the polls.
Young voters have been becoming more interested in electoral politics for a while. Between 2000 and 2004, turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds jumped 11 points, from 36 percent to 47 percent, and among the larger pool of 18- to 29-year olds, it rose from 40 percent to 49 percent. In 2006, youth turnout rose by another 3 percent, more than any other segment of the electorate, and young voters made the key difference in half the Senate seats that changed hands.
This election promises to involve our students far more, with even greater potential impact. When citizens start voting and volunteering at a young age, these habits tend to stick. So if we build on their newfound passion and concern, we could set them on a path of civic engagement for the rest of their lives. This includes finding policy solutions to the issues they address through their volunteer work -- which means, among other things, voting for candidates whose positions on these issues they approve.
A variety of organizations are working to support college student involvement in the election on a nonpartisan basis. Campus Compact -- a nonprofit higher education association that supports all forms of civic engagement on campus -- has established a nonpartisan initiative to boost voter registration and education among college students. As part of this effort, the organization has created a comprehensive website that brings together key resources, tools, and models from around the country, www.compact.org/vote. Another key site, www.YourVoteYourVoice.org, offers additional resources. And the student PIRGs have created a superb online registration tool, available at www.studentvote.org, which colleges can customize and post on their own Web sites.
Registration is the first challenge, of course, although in most states the cut-offs just hit. Students often don't realize they need to register until the peak of the fall campaign season, when in most states it's too late. And when they can't vote, we have to work harder to get them participating in other ways, like volunteering or talking about election issues with others.
For future rounds, we can remedy this situation most easily by registering students to vote when they register for fall classes or as part of orientation. Springfield College in Massachusetts registered students as they moved into the dorms and has set a goal of registering all eligible students on campus. Ohio’s John Carroll University has created a designated election Web page, set up locations to register students throughout campus, organized debate-watch parties, and established an election-related discussion series covering issues such as the importance of youth voting and civic engagement, the economy, abortion, immigration, and social justice.
If your state’s registration deadline has yet to hit, or if you have same-day registration, many more options are still open. Faculty can hand out registration forms in their classes. Student groups can set up tables at high-traffic areas like the student union. A residential campus could invite student government and student organizations to register people in the dorms -- the University of California Santa Barbara used this approach and registered 2,400 voters in a single night. Financial aid offices can distribute registration information in conjunction with student loan and work-study disbursements. Our technology departments can pass the word through voice mails, text messages, and e-mail reminders -- something they can also do for absentee ballot deadlines and for getting students out to vote on election day. The more we can recruit both students and faculty to register students in whatever creative ways they can, the more likely we’ll engage the vast bulk of our college students.
However many students we’ve helped register, our challenge now is to help them think critically about the choices they'll now be eligible to make. Given major issues that affect students -- from global climate change to the Iraq war, from the financial bailout and an uncertain economy to the escalating costs of higher education -- students need to understand where the candidates stand so they can decide who best reflects their own beliefs. Campuses can encourage professors to weave election-related themes into their courses throughout the fall, by scheduling discussions and debates (including on local races and initiatives) both in larger campus venues and within classes, and by working to get all students to recognize how profoundly this election could impact their individual and common futures. We need to do everything we can so that every student in our classes and on our campuses feels welcomed and feels their political beliefs are respected. That may even mean bending over backwards to encourage the voices of students whose views we disagree with. But so long as we do that, and make sure the materials we present do justice to the realities, we have a responsibility to use our classrooms to explore the difficult issues of our time.
We can do even more than helping students vote and vote thoughtfully. We can also encourage them to volunteer with the national or local candidates they choose to support, whatever their party affiliations, and with nonprofit civic groups that seek to involve the community. In 2004, for instance, two small leadership classes, at Ohio's Baldwin-Wallace College, registered 700 eligible inmates in the Cleveland jails. This year, the professor is assigning her students to volunteer in the local McCain or Obama campaigns, in local or state races, or in nonprofit registration efforts -- and then to write a paper analyzing their experiences. North Carolina Central University is encouraging students to help with major off-campus registration drives in the adjacent communities. Given sufficient institutional support, these kinds of efforts can make a tremendous difference.
How many of our students would volunteer, for instance, if we distributed information on the local McCain and Obama campaigns, or gave out the Web sites, or found ways for them to get involved even if they live in states where the outcomes of the presidential or senatorial races are pretty certain. We could, for instance, encourage them to participate in the voter calling programs that both of the national campaigns are running, where people in states without close national races use their extra cell minutes to call those in states where every vote can matter. So long as we make clear that who the students choose to volunteer with is their choice, not ours, we can encourage all this while still remaining meticulously nonpartisan.
Imagine if we worked through our service-learning networks to get a significant percentage of our students knocking on doors, making phone calls, having conversations that offer their fellow citizens an opportunity to engage with critical issues beyond 30-second attack ads and 1-minute TV sound bites. Once students begin to volunteer in these election-related efforts, they are far more likely to keep doing so throughout their lives. It's also a way to amplify the impact of their voices, as they reach out to others, both on campus and off.
Campuses can integrate these kinds of activities into existing service-learning and civic engagement programs. After the students go out and work with the campaigns of their choice, they could then return to their classrooms, reflect on what they learned, and share their experiences with their peers, including students volunteering for opposing candidates. These kinds of involvement could also connect them with role models of engaged community members. There's nothing like working side-by-side with an 83-year-old volunteer to teach a 21-year-old about keeping on for the long haul.
If we promote these efforts enough, they can shift the electoral landscape. Several elections ago, a Wesleyan University student registered 300 voters on her 3,000-person campus, and educated them on the candidates' respective stands on the environment and access to education. The lawmaker she supported ended up winning by 27 votes. This young woman almost didn't act "because I didn't think of myself as a political person." But the issues impelled her to risk. Had she not gotten involved, the district would have elected a different representative. Whatever we think of the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, we can learn from the approach of the college he founded, Liberty University, to offer buses to take students to the polls and even cancel classes on the day of the election.
Once we register our students, we can encourage them to vote through voting pledges, e-mail, text messages, posters and fliers, student-to-student phone banks, and coordinating transportation to off-campus voting sites. In some states, colleges also need to let students know what they need to do to satisfy restrictive ID laws and provide them with whatever will meet the requirements -- for instance, through a university ID or a zero-balance utility bill for students living in the dorms. We also need a parallel process to help students who will vote absentee (www.longdistancevoter.org offers lots of the necessary tools). And, one way or another, we need to give them a sense that their votes could make the difference.
Considering the impact of this election on the future our students will inherit, we owe it to them to do everything we can to encourage them to participate, while respecting the wide variety of political views and experiences on campus. Given recent trends, they're likely to respond, if we offer them the relevant opportunities. Again, we wouldn't be prescribing the support of any particular candidates. The students would make those choices on their own. But we'd be giving them a powerful opportunity to make their voices matter, and possibly take the first steps toward becoming engaged citizens for the rest of their lives. If we believe that civic education and engagement are part of our mission, this seems a powerful historic moment to rise to that challenge.
Paul Loeb, Maureen F. Curley and Sherry Morreale
Paul Loeb is author Soul of a Citizen and The Impossible Will Take a Little While. Maureen F. Curley is president of Campus Compact, a national higher education association dedicated to educating students for social responsibility. Sherry Morreale is director of graduate studies in the Department of Communication at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
Last year, college students were the most fervent supporters of Obama’s bid for the presidency. Now, the U.S. Senate has taken up what Obama says is the defining legislation of his term: health care reform. Oddly, the voice of college students is nowhere to be found in the national debate -- most likely because the activist set does not realize how much is at stake for them personally.
It might seem that college students have little to worry about. Most full-time students in fact have health insurance right now. Two-thirds are covered through their parents’ insurance plans and another 7 percent are covered through a university plan, according to the Government Accountability Office.
But one thing is guaranteed: College students with the good fortune to have insurance right now will lose their current coverage soon after graduation. For those who are insured through their parents’ plans, they will be dropped after they leave school. And for students on a university plan, they will soon learn that the loyalty of their alma mater has limits: It does not extend to a lifetime of affordable health care.
What is a student to do? The current answer, unfortunately, is to get a job. And not just any job: a stable, full-time job with an employer that will offer them health insurance. That, in fact, is the bizarre reality of health care in the United States. We currently live in a system that presumes “employer-sponsored insurance,” in which you must have a steady paycheck before you can get affordable health care.
As college students surely know, however, the prospect of steady full-time work is looking worse than ever. The unemployment rate for young adults is up from 10 percent last year to a whopping 15 percent this year. For recent grads who have the good fortune to land a job, they will be more likely than older workers to work for small companies. But small employers are also the least likely to offer health insurance, and more small companies have dropped health insurance for their workers every year since 2000.
The alternative is to buy insurance individually rather than to bother with an employer. For recent grads in particular, it’s a pity that the cost of these plans is rising faster than wages. As workers just starting their careers, college students will most likely have the lowest earnings of their lifetimes. Short of a steady job or enough money and know-how to navigate the private insurance market, the Class of 2010 will get insurance under the current system only if they are poor or disabled. Only then would they get scooped up by a government safety net program: Medicaid. But it’s not clear that any college students aspire to that fate.
This scenario does not even take into account the existential question that college seniors may be pondering right now: whether they even want to follow the straight-and-narrow path from college to traditional career. Entrepreneurs, activists, travelers, farmers, parents, artists -- be warned: All of those opportunities would require verve, intelligence -- and the willingness to sacrifice good health if need be. It is little wonder that people in their 20s are more likely to be uninsured than any other age group in the U.S. today.
Right now, the U.S. Senate is debating a bill that could help change this situation for college students. But many senators are not yet convinced that Americans really want health care reform. Do college students?
It is a good time for students to think through their answers. For one thing, Obama is calling for a vote on the Senate bill before Christmas. No doubt, health care bills are complicated and boring -- not exactly end-of-term pleasure reading. But students might start with a blog by the director of the White House budget office, Peter Orszag.
Heading into winter break, students also have the chance to think through the health care debate on a more personal level. They can find out when their current coverage is going to end. For those on a parent’s plan, it may come as a shock to find that they will lose coverage on Commencement Day.
Over the holidays, college students can also chat up their grandparents and other older relatives. Polls consistently show that people over the age of 65 are the most resistant to health care overhaul -- in large part because they want to protect their Medicare coverage.
College students do have a major stake in the outcome of the health care debate. So whether on campuses or on their own, students would be wise to think through the issues -- not for Obama’s sake this time, but for their own.
Laura Stark is an assistant professor of sociology and science in society at Wesleyan University; she co-wrote this essay with several Wesleyan juniors and seniors: Suzanna Hirsch, Samantha Hodges, Gianna Palmer and Kim Segall.
The New York Times last month reported a story about several politically active students who crossed the line from what the Times called “high jinks” to allegedly committing a federal felony (by breaking into the office of Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana to learn whether the Senator’s office was deliberately not answering phone calls). While this criminal activity is nothing short of outrageous, I assume it is an aberration. It is, however, connected to a bigger problem.
These students are part of an organized group of conservative students whose tactics are already well-known on many college campuses: selling cookies at reduced rates to women and students-of-color in protest of affirmative action; sneaking video cameras into classrooms and campus forums and posting out-of-context excerpts, often anonymously, as evidence of liberal indoctrination on campus; hosting a gun raffle; researching and publicizing campaign contributions of faculty members and staff. High jinks? Really? Check the campusreform.org Web site, which advises, “Why take action? Because it will shock your opposition.” Is that why activism matters, to shock and discourage others? Are faculty members and other students “the opposition?”
We need to be clear about what these acts are: attention-seeking tactics that intimidate faculty, students, and guest speakers, distort facts, reduce public issues to simplistic sound-bites, and inhibit the thoughtful exchange of ideas and deliberation, both in and out of the classroom. The students named in the Times are not trying to offset liberal bias – they are trying to prevent learning and chill, if not stop, civil discourse.
Recently, everyday citizens, columnists (including Tom Friedman, also in the Times), newspaper editors, and President Obama have amplified their call for the end of partisan gamesmanship and tactics that promote vitriol, conflict, and stalemates at the national level. It’s time that colleges and universities demand the same of their students.
We know what we should do:
Create spaces on campuses for better political discourse. When children act out, as my grandmother used to say, it’s because they haven’t been given constructive opportunities to “get the starch out.” Campus venues for public deliberation don’t need to be free-for-alls, like some (not all) of the health care town hall meetings in the fall. They can be structured learning opportunities in classrooms and beyond where students are expected to study an issue and engage in a process of open-minded and reasoned dialogue, respectful communication across differences, and collaborative problem solving. These should be venues where members of the campus community can “call for” dialogue on hot-button public issues. They are also venues where “high jinks” have no place.
Teach the arts of democracy: It’s no wonder the state of public discourse is so pathetic. Some of the structures that once were places where individuals learned how to behave as citizens in a democracy have broken down (families, neighborhoods, places of worship, newspapers, civics classes). Facilitating, establishing rules for engagement, active listening, issue framing, managing conflict, consensus building, and democratic decision making are skills most students simply don’t have. Campuses can offer certificate programs, weekend workshops and trainings, for-credit programs in intergroup relations and conflict resolution and leadership, and summer institutes. They can support faculty development in dialogue and deliberation as classroom pedagogy. The arts of democracy need to be taught. And they need to be practiced, to become habits on campuses.
Involve the broader community, not just enrolled students, in discussions about pressing issues. Doing so will increase the likelihood that students will be exposed to a diversity of perspectives. Getting to know, listening to, and learning alongside people with very different life experiences, including those with varied levels of social and political power and privilege, will help students keep an open mind and find solutions they hadn’t previously considered. At the same time, campuses can model a better way to do democracy, teach everyday citizens the arts of democracy, provide neutral venues for informed political deliberation, and serve as catalysts for reasoned, citizen-driven solutions to public problems.
Colleges and universities shy away from political discourse, partly because it is unpredictable and stirs up hornets, but that’s short-sighted and ill-advised. Some students are acting out as a result. And they don’t have to be so timid. Colleges and universities are not “the public square,” nor should they be. They are learning environments, and shocking and intimidating “high jinks” (again, felonies aside) cross a line and disrupt the educational process.
Higher education need to be more intentional about creating places where free, open, reasoned, and respectful speech takes place and where people’s opinions, including thoughtful conservative perspectives, are heard. Perhaps a place to start is with the state of political discourse and activism, on campus and off.
It was late at night on a spring evening in 2006 at Columbia University, and a dozen of us remained around a table; no one wanted to leave. Earlier I had spoken about how to identify what was and what was not anti-Semitism. This group of progressive Jewish students wanted to keep talking. I had expected their post-presentation conversation to be about Zionism or definitions of anti-Semitism, but what made the students want to stay for that last hour was a discussion about the college experience itself.
After talking about the expected topics, one student had said, “This is the first time I’ve felt comfortable saying what I really think about Israel.”
When I asked why that was, she said, “Because I always have to gauge, if I say what I think, whether that would impact a grade or a friendship.”
“Is this only about Israel that you find yourself repressing your views?” I asked. “No,” she said. Others agreed – this culture of double-checking one’s thoughts, they said, applied to many issues, and was experienced by non-Jewish students at Columbia, too, as well as by students they knew at other campuses.
How depressing that at an institution designed to shake up the thinking of smart young people, the message heard instead is the importance of self-censoring. Not because of harassment or intimidation, but because there was insufficient space created and cultivated for students to take intellectual risks. College should be the time when students receive encouragement to say things that others might find difficult or even offensive, as part of the learning process.
The flip side of this problem occurred Feb. 8 at the University of California at Irvine. Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren spoke, or at least he tried to. He was repeatedly interrupted by anti-Israel students, heckling him.
This is part of a disturbing trend of Israeli speakers on campus being denied the ability to speak or speak without harassment (as has happened at University of California at Los Angeles, University of Pittsburgh, University of Chicago and elsewhere). The UCI campus has had a long history of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic incidents, usually tied to its Muslim Student Union. These students were not afraid to say what they thought, but they displayed a complete unwillingness to listen. They interfered not only with Oren’s ability to share his ideas and experiences, but even more importantly, the ability of their classmates to learn.
To the university’s credit, protesters were removed and arrested. An Irvine official noted that disrupting a speaker violates the campus code of conduct, and that suspensions or expulsions might ensue. The students who disrupted the event must be disciplined. What they did directly undermines the integrity of the academic process, much as plagiarism does, and should not be tolerated.
But there is a larger issue here. As young adults become engaged with new ideas, especially ones that touch some supercharged aspect of their identity, they may lose the capacity to see complexities and grays, and self-righteously see themselves as arbiters of correct thoughts or morality.
Rather than just accept this developmental zealotry as a fact of life, university leaders should strive to educate students who can think clearly about -- as opposed to demonize and dismiss, or be fearful of engaging -- ideas with which they do not agree.
The problem is that students do not sufficiently understand the nature of the academic enterprise, and what is expected of them. To help them learn, faculty members and university leaders must mine conflicts (about anything, not just views toward the Middle East), not avoid them. It is from difficult and contentious questions, not the easy or formalistic ones, that students can learn the most.
Yes, it is true that students identify with one faction or another and may have a great desire to “win” a political contest. But universities should be much clearer about defining the importance, and uniqueness, of the academic enterprise and the culture it requires. No student should be afraid to say what he or she thinks, and no student should prohibit another from learning. It is no accident that the smartest people I know are more likely to begin a sentence with “I might be wrong, but....” It would help if students learned they might be too, and that being wrong is not the end of the world.
Academic freedom, of course, requires that people have the right to talk on campus. But for that freedom to be real, rather than a nice-sounding notion, much more than policy statements and enforcement of rules is required. Campus administrators need to have a clear goal: that every student should understand, in his or her core, that the purpose of their college education is to help them learn one thing -- to be a critical thinker.
A critical thinker appreciates ideas that challenge or contradict more than those that endorse or confirm. And a critical thinker takes risks.
Kenneth Stern is director of the American Jewish Committee's Division on Antisemitism and Extremism.
Last week Inside Higher Ed published a column by Scott McLemee entitled “Rude Democracy,” which discussed Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity and apparent trends indicating a lack of political engagement among young people. McLemee’s argument was both intelligent and important, but I believe there’s another side to the story of Stewart’s rally, political civility, and turnout among college students and young voters in the 2010 midterm election.
Unsurprisingly, Republicans were very successful in the midterm election, gaining control of the House of Representatives and cutting into the Democrats’ majority in the Senate. While the politically active on campuses across the country will surely devote much discussion to the results of the election and their implications over the proceeding days and weeks, it’s less likely they’ll discuss the execrable turnout among 18- to 29-year-olds.
Early exit polling done by CBS News indicates that young people made up roughly 9 percent of all voters in the midterm election. In 2008, young people made up 18 percent of the electorate. Why?
Political scientists and campaign consultants offer several theories. Americans are more likely to vote when enthusiasm abounds for the candidates they support and young people tend to support Democrats. Young people historically don’t turn out for midterms. Barack Obama’s candidacy in 2008 was uniquely galvanizing for young voters. The agenda of Congress and the president has not adequately addressed energy policy -- a very important issue to college students – and media coverage of the health care reform bill (which did quietly include benefits for young people) focused mostly on the concerns of older voters. Thus, young people seem to have concluded that voting isn’t worth their time right now.
Herbst studied the views of young people and found that “72 percent of students agreed that it was very important for them to always feel comfortable in class.” Herbst argues that “Contrary to the image of college being a place to ‘find oneself’ and learn from others, a number of students saw the campus as just the opposite – a place where already formed citizens clash, stay with like-minded others, or avoid politics altogether.”
Based on Herbst’s study, McLemee, writing prior to the sanity rally, argued that, while Stewart’s rally was likely to draw lots of young people and provide them with a fun weekend, “the anti-ideological spirit of the event is a dead end. The attitude that it's better to stay cool and amused than to risk making arguments or expressing too much ardor -- this is not civility. It’s timidity.” Clearly, McLemee believes that the unwillingness of young people to engage in political debate – argument – is not a political virtue, but rather a democratically harmful form of indifference.
Before accepting McLemee’s assertion, though, I think several important questions need to be answered. Why do the students in Herbst's survey feel that it isn't possible to persuade others? Could it be that such a belief is the product of an uncivil political culture? If students had political role models who successfully persuaded others in civil and respectful ways, would they be more inclined to view the political arena – and the classroom – as a space in which the clash of ideas can occur and yield positive results?
Personally, I can think of two positive things Stewart does; first, he encourages young people to refuse to subscribe to the currently pervasive ultra-partisan view of politics that fosters incivility and acts as a barrier to progress; and second, and more basically, he brings some level of political awareness through humor to people who might otherwise be totally apathetic and ignorant. Stewart’s influence, in my view, doesn’t breed timidity (as McLemee asserts), but rather increased youth engagement of the type that rejects a toxic political culture.
It also seems possible that the “Obama Effect” I mentioned earlier, holding that young voters turned out in 2008 because of their admiration of the current president, is at play. I'm worried that young people, perhaps naively, viewed Candidate Obama as a post-partisan role model and that President Obama’s lack of success thus far may further discourage engagement among young people who believed he had the ability to catalyze change without acting like every other “scumbag politician” they've come to dislike.
Moving forward, two things are clear. First, the perspective of young people has the power to change the nature of partisanship; if we, as a generation, continue to subscribe to the ideals of the Rally to Restore Sanity, we have the potential to improve the tone of politics.
Second, however, the burden most certainly falls on us; politicians are not going to pander to a portion of the electorate they don’t believe will turn out to vote, so if we want to transform Stewart’s rally from a sunny Saturday on the Mall into a new political reality, we’ve got to make our voices heard.
For over two hundred years, Americans of all faiths have come together, put their shoulders to the wheel of history, and made this country what it is today. And I know that as we go forward, it’s going to take all of us – Christian and Jew, Hindu and Muslim, believer and non-believer – to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
When a university president shakes hands with a senior on graduation day, she is likely confident that the student has certain positive knowledge, attitudes and behaviors toward diversity, including racial, ethnic, sexual orientation, class, and gender diversity. If she’s feeling optimistic, she might expect these attitudes toward diversity to shape students’ civic participation and leadership beyond college.
So where is religious diversity in this mix? What knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors should a college president expect of her graduates when it comes to the Catholics and Protestants, Muslims and Jews, Hindus and nonbelievers that make up the American fabric? Religion is increasingly prevalent within American public and political discourse, and religious intolerance is at significant levels toward groups like Muslims, Mormons, Evangelicals and Atheists. Intolerance toward Muslims and Mormons appears to be rising.
These rates and attitudes mirror prejudices that Catholics and Jews have faced in the past. The good news is that Catholics and Jews are now -- according to Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s research -- among the most favorably viewed by their fellow Americans. How did this powerful change occur? Social science data suggest that increasing appreciative knowledge of these religions and expanding opportunities for meaningful positive encounters with Catholics and Jews were the keys.
Given that colleges and universities are places that facilitate encounters with and knowledge about diversity, could higher education play a similar role with regard to today’s more expansive religious diversity?
On March 17, President Obama offered colleges and universities an opportunity to address this question: the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge. Obama invited campuses to commit to a year of interfaith cooperation and community service programming on their campuses, bringing students of different religious and nonreligious backgrounds together to serve the common good. This challenge allows us to highlight those dimensions of different religious traditions that inspire service and social justice and create spaces where students from different backgrounds can have positive meaningful encounters by working together to apply these shared values.
Obama was right to pick colleges and universities as the proving ground for this work. Other forms of diversity have robust curricular and co-curricular initiatives meant to foster appreciative knowledge about diverse traditions and positive meaningful encounters between students of diverse backgrounds. President Obama is asking us to do the same work with regards to America’s religious diversity.
So what kind of impact might we expect to see as campuses take on this challenge?
1. College and university presidents will start talking to each other about why this work matters, and why it ought to be an institutional priority. As campuses articulate an institutional commitment to interfaith cooperation, we hope it sparks a national conversation among higher education leaders, and that college and university presidents will encourage and challenge one another in their advancement of this work.
2. Learning from the broader diversity movement, colleges will begin to address these topics in the classroom to build students' appreciative knowledge. We imagine specialized courses such as the history of the interfaith movement or theologies of service in different religious traditions, as well as interdisciplinary curriculums that will explore interfaith cooperation within a variety of fields, such as political science, history, and sociology. The latter curriculums will be aimed at engaging a broad swath of the student population.
3. Campuses will initiate broad co-curricular programming meant to intentionally foster positive encounters between students of different religious and nonreligious backgrounds. Just as students participate in regular service-learning days, and diversity is incorporated into training for orientation leaders and RAs, campuses will get creative about programming that engages a significant number of students in interfaith cooperation, like campuswide interfaith action campaigns and religious diversity trainings for RAs.
4. The work of engaging religious diversity on campus will move from niche to norm. Excellent interfaith initiatives exist on many campuses, but they are often run by a single chaplain or small campus unit who only has resources to reach a small group of students. When engaging racial and ethnic diversity became a priority on campuses, we saw sustainable campuswide curricular and co-curricular programs and a national exchange of best practices and measurement for impact. Our hope is that we are nearing a similar tipping point for this work.
5. Campuses – with students leading the way – will harness the social capital of their communities and demonstrate the power of interfaith cooperation. We think about Greg Damhorst, a student leader at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who with religious and nonreligious student groups mobilized 5,119 volunteers to pack 1,012,640 meals for earthquake survivors in Haiti. A local paper called the event the largest humanitarian effort ever staged outside of a major metropolitan area. This challenge should inspire projects like Greg’s on campuses all over the country, with students of diverse religious and nonreligious backgrounds making real impact on social issues.
6. We will see measurable changes in national knowledge, attitudes and behaviors toward religious diversity. As college students who simply think it is normal to cooperate with those who believe differently from them graduate and begin to take leadership, we hope that some of the dismal numbers on religious tolerance might significantly shift.
So what will it take for a college president to know that her graduating seniors are ready to lead in and engage with a religiously diverse world? Obama’s interfaith challenge offers the chance to find out.
Eboo Patel and Cassie Meyer
Eboo Patel is founder and president and Cassie Meyer is director of content at Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), an organization that works with college campuses on religious diversity issues. IFYC is a close adviser and partner for the White House on this effort.
Wind swept onto the campus of Washington University in St. Louis around noon Friday, bending tree limbs back and throwing rain sideways into castle-like Brookings Hall. But the inside of the admissions office was silent and still.