You’ve heard it again and again. "My vote doesn’t matter," students too often say. Others complain that politicians are "all the same and all corrupt." How do we overcome this cynical resignation and encourage students to register and vote despite their conviction that the game is fundamentally rigged?
In 2008, many students vested huge hopes in Barack Obama, reinforced by the enthusiasm of their peers. Now, they’re dealing with what veteran pollster Charlie Cook summed up as "disappointment and disillusionment." Too many regard electoral politics less as a potential arena for change than a corrupt swamp likely to drown their remaining ideals. In a Rock the Vote survey shortly before the November 2010 election, 59 percent of students said they were more cynical than two years before, and 63 percent of those who doubted they'd vote justified their likely withdrawal by agreeing that "no matter who wins, corporate interests will still have too much power and prevent real change." They did indeed stay home, with roughly four million fewer students participating than just two years before, according to the highly respected CIRCLE youth research center. For instance, Ohio’s student participation rate dropped from 69 percent to 22 percent, Wisconsin’s from 66 percent to 19 percent and Florida’s from 61 percent to 19 percent. (The Ohio figure is based on a small sample, size, but fits the larger pattern). Student participation dropped significantly in nearly every state.
Toss in uncertain job prospects, cuts to higher education, and massive student debt, and it’s no wonder that so many students despair about their power to make a difference in the electoral realm. That’s true even as they continue to volunteer in one-on-one service, with 70 percent of college freshmen considering it "essential or very important to help people in need." Last fall, at a University of Vermont dorm devoted to community service, students described an array of creative projects they were engaged with, then fell silent when Paul (one of the authors of this piece) asked about potential electoral involvement, finally concluding that the differences between the candidates barely mattered. In a Harvard University survey this spring, just 36 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds believed it was honorable to run for public office.
For those of us who follow elections closely, this is one of high stakes, with salient differences between the two major parties. It's also a key election for American higher education, given the fiscal pressures that both individual students and most campuses are facing. Because it’s a presidential year, more students will undoubtedly vote in 2012 than in 2010. But for many, across the political spectrum, the links between issues and candidates seem tangential and remote. If we want them to fully participate, we need to create a commons where they can reflect on issues and candidates, and provide a rationale for why their involvement matters.
The Numbers That Matter
This means offering examples of how close electoral races can be, educating students on issues and candidates, and making the case that, even if their preferred candidates will not usher in the millennium, working to elect them is still worthwhile -- in part because it will allow students to keep pressing them on all the issues they care about.
Resources for Engagement
How do we help students register and turn out at the polls despite challenging new voter registration and ID laws and other practical barriers? How do we help them research and debate candidate positions, debunk false campaign ads and rhetoric, and make informed decisions in their choices. The nonpartisan Campus Election Engagement Project works to help faculty, administrators, and staff involved their students in the election, offering checklists and other resources to help them register, volunteer, learn about the issues, and turn out at the polls.
In terms of ads and candidate stands, faculty can also refer people to respected nonpartisan websites like Factcheck.org and Flackcheck.org, from University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School, or other respected sites like Politifact.com.
Faculty can sign up to be notified and to connect with others working to engage at their schools at www.campusvotemap.info. We can also use the available resources to help students engage their friends and classmates, reaching out directly and electronically to ensure they have required identification documents, register in time, are educated on the issues, and get to the polls. There’s even a free downloadable smartphone app that helps them do this electronically.
We might begin by reminding our students of the very small margins by which critical elections have been won and stressing the importance of their vote, whoever they choose to vote for. That’s true both because of the immediate impact it may have, and because their participation will set a pattern in their lives going forward. We can talk about the 537 vote Florida total that handed George Bush the presidency in 2000, or the 312 votes by which Al Franken won the 2008 Minnesota Senate race. Students may assume that their votes will be inconsequential, but multiplied by those of all their peers, they matter, time and again.
Paul once interviewed a Wesleyan University student named Tess who, inspired by an environmental conference, joined with several friends to register nearly 300 fellow students concerned about environmental threats and cuts in government financial aid programs. Nearly all ended up supporting their strongly sympathetic congressman, who won re-election by 21 votes. Tess had hesitated before she began. She didn’t think of herself as a “political person,” didn’t want to come off like “a politician spouting a line,” and wondered whether her efforts would even matter. Nonetheless, she decided to go ahead and do the best she could. Had she done nothing, her congressman would have lost.
Paul had his own similar experience securing three votes for his preferred Washington State gubernatorial candidate on the day of the 2004 election. One forgot it was Election Day. Another didn’t know if it was still O.K. to use an absentee ballot. The third needed a ride to the polls. After three recounts, the difference was 133 votes, so had just a handful of his fellow volunteers had stayed home, or if there had been a handful more on the other side, the outcome would have been reversed.
But even when students recognize the math, many still resist participation. They’ll say they don’t know enough and that "the issues are too complicated." They’ll insist the candidates are really "all the same." They’ll say this even when candidates hold very different positions on issues from health care, climate change, sexual politics, and immigration to tax policies, higher education budgets, student financial aid, and likely Supreme Court appointments. For some, saying they don’t know enough may just be an excuse for withdrawal, though we’ve heard such statements even from many who are very involved in other ways. Others hold back because they feel helpless to change things. Caught in a self-fulfilling perception of powerlessness, they decide it makes little sense to take on the challenge of following candidates and issues.
We can begin to counter these cycles of withdrawal by helping students reflect on candidates’ positions, and helping them separate truth from fiction amid the barrage of attack ads that many will encounter — ads that risk deepening students’ sense of electoral politics as just a toxic field of lies. Students have told us repeatedly they want "more fact-based campaigning" and "to learn more about platforms." That’s something we can help with as educators, promoting both classroom and co-curricular discussions about where candidates actually stand.
But it’s not just lack of information that leads students to withdraw. When they say "My vote doesn’t matter," they’re also conveying a sense that the political system is so corrupt that no matter who wins, true power will remain in the hands of the wealthy and connected, and that the voices of ordinary citizens will be ignored. Even when they concede that their votes could alter the electoral result, many doubt that this will make a significant difference.
That’s particularly true in the current election, where many students are dealing with dashed hopes from 2008, and students of all perspectives have ambivalent responses to both presidential candidates. In Obama’s case, because his campaign drew so strongly on slogans of hope and change, and because so many students supported him, one-time supporters are particularly wrestling with disillusionment. Forty percent in a CIRCLE poll this summer described their prime response as “disappointment.” Many who lean toward Romney are also ambivalent because of the inconsistency of his stands and his deviation from their version of true conservatism. In contrast with four years ago, most seem to regard this election as a contest between candidates they have to apologize for, rather than ones who speak to their most far-reaching hopes.
From Lyndon Johnson to the Tea Party
One antidote to cynical resignation is historical context — which is something we can do our best to offer even if we aren’t historians or political scientists. The more students see their vote as promoting the kinds of changes they’d like to continue to work for, the more likely they’ll be to show up at the polls, bring others along, and stay involved after the election. We might suggest they view voting not as a sole way to make change, but one in which electoral politics complements other approaches in a toolbox of change such as, like one-on-one service or political organizing and protest. Carpenters don’t discard their saws or drills just because they prefer swinging a hammer. They recognize that you can’t build a house without using all three.
To familiarize students with the toolbox of social change, we can explore ways they can reach out on issues they care about, build broad coalitions, tell the story of the causes they embrace in a ways that will resonate beyond the core already converted (think of the gay rights movement for a successful example). More than anything, we can encourage them to persist in working for what they believe, whatever the inevitable setbacks. They’d do well to heed the conclusions of Meredith Segal, a young woman who founded "Students for Obama" on Facebook, grew it to 150,000 members, and then co-chaired the national student campaign from her Bowdoin dorm room. "Your candidate gets elected," she said, "Obama or anyone else. People think, ‘Here’s their platform, here are their policies. They’ll magically become law.’ But that’s never the way things change. You have to keep pushing. You have to keep working. You have to keep building that engaged community. You can never expect any elected official to do it all on their own, no matter how much you admire them or how hard you worked to help them win. Your election night victory is just the beginning of the process."
Historical examples can also offer powerful context. Think of the relationship of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to the civil rights movement. They were personally sympathetic but held the movement at arm’s length for fear of shattering the Democratic coalition, in which Southern segregationist whites played a major role. Johnson even opposed the seating of an integrated Mississippi delegation that challenged the official all-white one at the 1964 Democratic convention. Yet civil rights activists persisted and created a political and moral force so strong that it expanded the horizon of the possible. Johnson ended up investing all his political skill and capital to pass the civil rights and voting rights bills, even though he knew the likely costs to his party — and predicted, accurately, that the Democrats would lose the South for a generation or more. Johnson’s opponent, Barry Goldwater, was a staunch opponent of these laws, would never have signed them, much less actively pressed for them. It took both the right political leader and a movement systematically pushing them.
For a recent example, think of the Tea Party. They began (before they took the Tea Party name) by showing up at Town Hall meetings on Obama’s health care bill, publicly speaking out while most of Obama’s supporters did little beyond signing online petitions or emails. They organized through friends, colleagues and online networks. They aggressively recruited candidates and volunteered to get out the vote, sweeping state and federal offices in 2010. They obviously received a boost from financial backers like the Koch brothers, and from conservative media. But without ordinary citizens acting in a way that combined electoral and non-electoral involvement, they would never have made an impact. And they’ve clearly succeeded in changing contemporary American politics.
From a different political perspective, the Occupy movement similarly shifted initial public debate. Discussion of income inequality and unemployment rose dramatically in the major media in response to the (mostly young) people rallying in New York’s Zuccotti Park and similar public spaces throughout the country, targeting financial institutions they considered responsible for widening America’s economic divides. The movement influenced New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to reverse his initial opposition to renewing the state’s “millionaire’s tax,” and the Los Angeles City Council to pass a "responsible banking" ordinance that requires banks doing business with the city to disclose detailed data about local lending practices. The movement highlighted our distribution of wealth in a way that liberal economists had been trying and failing to do for decades. And many students still seem passionately interested in what’s happened with it. But because Occupy has been so adamantly non-electoral in its approach, and often ambivalent about coalitions with allies like unions, its impact on political policies and choices has so far been muted.
Beyond the Perfect Standard
When students resist electoral participation, it’s often from a sense that the sphere has become so corrupted, particularly by money, that it will in turn corrupt them to participate. They fear that it will undermine their authenticity and leave them craven and corrupt, like the Wesleyan student’s fear of becoming just "a politician." This fits the narrative that Paul’s Soul of a Citizen book calls "the perfect standard," where people decide that they can’t dare act for change unless they know every relevant 17th-decimal statistic, are as eloquent as Martin Luther King and as saintly as Gandhi, and find the perfect cause and moment to act in their lives. When applied to political candidates or leaders, this standard demands a consistency difficult to match, because whatever candidates’ strengths or flaws, they’ll inevitably disappoint us with some of their compromises or stands. The question is whether students will participate in choosing our elected leaders despite their reservations, or withdraw and let them be selected by others, including those very wealthy contributors whose undue influence so many of the students bemoan.
We can even encourage students to volunteer in campaigns despite mixed feelings, suggesting they make phone calls and knock on doors for their preferred candidates even if they don’t agree with their every stand. In fact, voicing their ambivalence while making clear the stakes may even give them more credibility, given how much of the population shares their doubts. On the practical side, we can give them academic credit for doing this, accompanied by whatever reflective follow-up we assign or negotiate.
Our challenge is to make our classrooms and campuses venues for thoughtful debate, reflection, and discussion, bending over backwards to ensure students of all political perspectives feel welcomed. To emphasize this last point, if we’re politically liberal and just a single student of ours is conservative, or vice versa, they need to feel encouraged — even if we have to go out of our way to help connect them with ways to participate consistent with their values. This election will affect students profoundly, as will future ones, so we need to model a climate where they recognize the stakes, argue the issues, yet respect those with differing opinions, refusing to cavalierly demonize them. The more we can do this, the more we can chip away at the toxic political culture of our time.
If students are politically disappointed, and many are, we might do well to stress the words of Czech dissident (and eventual president) Vaclav Havel, "Hope is not a prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart." Or as Jim Wallis of Sojourners puts it, “Hope is believing despite the evidence and then watching the evidence change.” That means hope can never be the property of a particular political leader, party, or campaign, though candidates can certainly tap into it. Rather, it resides in the actions of ordinary citizens, including, but not limited to showing up at the polls to exert what influence they can. We’d do well to use the podium of our classrooms to encourage student idealism, whatever its political direction, including when it breaches the boundaries of what’s deemed politically possible. We can emphasize that those we elect will make immensely consequential choices in our common name, and that whatever the political visions our students embrace, they’re most likely to achieve them by actively supporting the candidates closest to their stands, rather than withdrawing from the fray and allowing those whose values they most oppose to be elected by default. In other words, they can challenge the degradation of our politics without withdrawing from the process, or holding those who nonetheless participate to an impossibly perfect standard. As Meredith Segal stressed, working for change requires using all available tools, and taking advantage of every key moment to move toward the political goals they believe in.
The recent drinking-related death of a freshman at California State University at Fresno should alert college administrators, students, and parents to the seriousness of student alcohol abuse as it occurs in and around campus settings. This unnecessary tragedy should also motivate students to use every precaution available when engaging with alcohol, a popular – and dangerous – hobby.
When I read of these incidents, and there are far too many, I wonder why student alcohol misuse continues to be a problem. It seems that every tragedy sparks a renewed campus interest in curbing alcohol abuse, whether in the form of community vigils to raise awareness, student activism aimed at changing the college culture, or policy reforms that promise safer campus environments. However, just as soon as we take a step forward to make a campus environment safer, popular culture pushes us two steps backward.
College students are targeted with messages that promote drinking as a part of the college experience. Students see images from mega-beer advertising in everything from sports to popular reality TV shows. In this year of the presidential election, drinking beer has even played a role in making President Obama appear more likable to voters. In this environment, I find myself resigned to the belief that notwithstanding the risks, students are going to consume alcohol, sometimes in unhealthy ways, while in college. It is a part of the college experience, just as much as the freshman 15 and the sophomore slump are rites of passage.
Campus administrators have responded to student alcohol misuse with education, policy and advocacy outreach. Campuses have grown their arsenal of websites, policies, pamphlets, posters, videos, training sessions, peer educators, themed housing, community coalitions, online assessments, and other tools to combat the issue and help students make safer choices with alcohol. The research suggests that the use of these various tools does curb alcohol misuse and risky drinking behavior. In my research, I have found that students frequently engage with alcohol in risky ways while attending off-campus parties. The bottom line is simply this: students are better off with the intervention than without it.
But are these interventions sufficient? And conversely, if we add one more program to our strategy, will it make a difference? My research leads me to believe that a focus on off-campus party hosts could make a difference. It is clear that those who organize or host parties are underprepared and ill-educated to do so. I advocate for targeted education of party hosts so that they can work to create and manage parties in safe and responsible ways. I focus on students who host parties, because I believe they are the best individuals to make decisions that can save the lives of others. In the same way that they bring groups of students together for parties, both on- and off-campus, they also stay at campus parties long after administrators have gone home or to sleep.
Focusing on hosts leads to some important policy and programmatic strategies. Policies that encourage hosts to take protective actions when promoting alcohol use are likely to be more effective than banning alcohol from parties. However, most party hosts are not ready for this responsibility. Students are underprepared to create and manage parties in which others can socialize with alcohol in safe environments. For example, when I asked hosts about their preparations for and actions during a party, they said they are unlikely to provide any snacks, heavier food, water, or non-alcoholic beverages. By not making these common protective items available, they are missing an opportunity to reduce the likelihood of intoxication among party guests.
In addition, hosts are unlikely to use basic party management techniques, such as adherence to state alcohol laws; preventing minors from drinking at their party; having a sober team or keeping sober themselves; calling police if the party gets out of control; verifying that the smoke detectors and fire extinguisher work before a party; and contacting neighbors in advance of a party. Party hosts seem unaware that each of these proactive measures could greatly reduce personal liability and risk to students.
Party hosts are a weak link in the chain of strategies to manage the campus environment. There is a need to be more aggressive as we extend alcohol education programs to those who host or plan to host off-campus parties. It is a safe assumption that on-campus and off-campus party hosts behave similarly. In our collective effort to curb student alcohol-related incidents, campus administrators should continue their work along the environmental management approach by intentionally targeting student party hosts. Because this is a challenging group to reach, hosts would benefit from a curriculum that promotes safe party management, practical online resources for event planning, messages from campus and community leaders that reinforce healthy drinking behaviors, and policies that give students the incentive to do the right thing, like good Samaritan and medical amnesty policies.
But is curbing student alcohol misuse the ultimate goal? No, we need to push beyond curbing alcohol misuse to stop senseless and preventable alcohol-related deaths. For this to happen there needs to be a cultural shift in the way in which the campus community values alcohol and alcohol-related activities, especially as they occur on or near college campuses. Common practices that send unintended messages to students include limited late night or weekend student activity programming; few Friday or weekend classes or exams; sporting events that sell alcohol and promote a tradition of pre- and post-game tailgate parties; open bar events for university donors, faculty, and alumni; vague student alcohol policies that are often not applied equally to all student groups; and area restaurants and bars that give significant discounts for happy hour, pitcher, and bottomless cup promotions. Until we seriously address the issue of campus drinking, including a campus dialogue between and among campus members, campus administrators will remain handcuffed to strategies that are additive in nature but that do not adequately address the problem.
Designing and implementing a comprehensive party host curriculum and training is additive – but significant. I urge scholar practitioners to rethink, research, and discuss new and integrative approaches to alcohol education. Students who are new to college campuses, such as the case at Fresno State, deserve a better environment in which to learn and develop. They deserve an environment and a campus administration that strives for more than curbing student alcohol misuse. The goal of an environmental management approach is to influence behavioral changes within campus and community environments; the challenge is to do so with campus-specific interventions, limited resources, and narrowly tailored campus committees responsible for risk management.
Rick C. Jakeman is assistant professor of higher education within the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at George Washington University.
The news that 125 Harvard students were under investigation for cheating on an exam came just days after we were informed that the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency was stripping Lance Armstrong of his Tour de France titles. In both of these cases, we have alleged wrongdoing by those at the top of their fields, and there is no reason to think that it was cheating that got them there. The Harvard students were admitted to our top university because of their hard work and scholarly achievement. Armstrong would have been a racing legend regardless. It is easy to understand why those who are not in the upper echelon might seek illicit advantage in order to get their shot at greatness, but why would the already great cheat?
To act in an ethical way requires two steps: first, you need to figure out what would be the right thing to do in your particular situation, and second, you need to actually do it. Usually, when we commit immoral acts, it is a failure of the second step. We know we shouldn’t do it, but we do it anyway.
Maybe it was expedient, maybe it got us something we really wanted or allowed us to hide some misdeed or embarrassing error, or perhaps it was peer pressure or rebellion. Usually, we are fully aware when we are doing something we shouldn’t and we try to hide it or rationalize it. Fewer are the times when we act wrongly by moral miscalculation, when we thought about how to behave and came up with the wrong answer. But that may be exactly what happened in these cases.
If what we value is out of whack, then so will be our decisions about what constitutes proper action. If we are driven solely by ends, if success and achievement are the only things to which we assign worth, then the means will seem unimportant by contrast.
In athletics, we celebrate winners. Sporting goods stores are full of t-shirts with sayings such as “Second place is the first loser” or “If you’re not the lead dog, the view never changes.” Wheaties boxes are reserved for champions. The message is clear – it is not the training, practicing or competing, but the victory that is valued. The playing of the game is fleeting, quickly forgotten but for the highlight reel; it is only the win or the loss that becomes a thing in itself and lives on forever.
If sports were about the playing, then cheating would be not only wrong, but irrational -- it destroys the entire reason for engaging in the sport. If a mountain climber’s goal is to say he stood at the peak of Kilimanjaro, then he could get there by helicopter and the climbing would become irrelevant. And if what we value changes from the doing to what has been done, then cheating becomes desirable.
What we see in sports is now being deeply embedded in the classroom. It is not the acquiring of knowledge, understanding, or insight, but rather the grade that is important. We are less interested in learning than in learning outcomes.
The switch is subtle, but critically important. If students love thinking and learning, then cheating cheats them of what they seek. There would be a disincentive to take short cuts.
But if process is trumped by outcomes in education, then cheating become rational. Add a competitive element in which there will be positive or negative consequences for having higher or lower marks and you develop a culture in which seeking any means to better scores becomes natural and normal, not only accepted but lauded. In this environment, the cheater is seen as “beating the system”, as having played the game better, not worse.
This may be what happened at Harvard. With standardized tests and concern about learning outcomes assessment, we have altered how we look at learning purportedly to help it improve. But what we have done is to sow the seeds of that which undermines it and leads to the destruction of what made it valuable in the first place.
Steve Gimbel is chair of the department of philosophy at Gettysburg College.
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