The Politics That Should Be in the Classroom

Running for the school board prompts Matthew M. DeForrest to think about professors' attitudes about civic life.

October 13, 2006

Like most of us in academe, I move in a number of educational circles. There are my colleagues at Johnson C. Smith University, my wife’s colleagues at Wingate University, and a host of others. I recently made a decision to try and expand my educational circle somewhat. I am running in a non-partisan election for a seat on the Union County, N.C. Board of Education. In doing so, I have begun to learn just how hard it is to run a campaign -- something that I should probably confess to not doing entirely well. Live and learn.

One of the things that I have been most surprised to learn has nothing to do with all the minutiae of campaigning. The thing that surprised me most was the reaction of my colleagues when they have heard I am running. They are proud of me with a reaction that almost borders on awe. This awe, however, is not entirely comforting. As best I can describe it, it is the awe reserved for martyrs and those who succeed through some slight madness that sets them apart. And before that sounds like it is going too far, the standard response to learning that I have thrown my hat into the ring is begins with something like “Good for you.” Almost immediately after this, however, comes the question, “What possessed you to run for office?” (The alternate is a reflection on what a thankless job it will be.)

Pay attention to that word possessed -- the one with religious and/or demonic overtones and the implication that no sane person would do this.

When it came up in my classes (I don’t teach in Union County so I don’t have to worry about a potential conflict of interest.), the students were more excited. They wanted to know why I was running and what I stood for. They wanted to know what motivated me. “Why did you choose to run?” replaced questions that implied a loss of mental control.

As I thought about this, I began to realize that I was looking at something that went beyond collegial humor and the wry cynicism that academics are famous for developing as a part of their pursuit of something like objectivity. I suspect that I am looking at a flaw in the way the academy approaches politics.

Because of the ongoing examination of the academy by groups concerned with whether there are a bunch of tenured radicals corrupting America’s youth, most of the discussion has been about whether or not professors are trying to indoctrinate their students in one political belief or another in their classrooms. This is, of course, an important concern. If an instructor cannot maintain a separation of our personal politics and our professional obligations, that instructor needs to learn to do so quickly.

But not all political activity is equal and we need to learn to embrace some of it for the benefit of our classrooms.

One of the big movements currently circulating in academe is the move towards “active and collaborative learning” -- a movement being simultaneously developed by academics as a way to improve student learning and a movement consistent with the Department of Education’s interest in seeing more measurable results of what goes in college classrooms. There are books and journals devoted to the study of these approaches and techniques. Several of these techniques, at their core, rely on modeling.

Now with that in mind, consider this: How often do we tell students that they need to vote and participate in their civic lives. How often do we assign plays like Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People or essays like Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” or Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and then discuss the issues of war and civil rights that swirled around them yet limit the realm or discussion to the purely academic?

They often hear us speak. They do not often hear about what we do.

So long as we do not model behavior, students will not see anyone participating in the civic realm. The politicians they see on television aren’t real to them. They do not regularly see a person that they know and can personally identify with actively engaging in the civic discourse or hear about the struggle to choose the best course of action to make our towns better from an array of bad options.

What I am advocating here is not something tied to one party or political philosophy. Whether you are a left-leaning anthropology professor or a member of the right of center business school set, we should all be active participants in the civic realm and, importantly, our students should know that those activities are a part of our lives.

For those of you still worried about the long term effects of possession, this doesn’t mean you need to need to run for political office. There is a host of ways to be engaged. It could be something as simple as getting up extra early on Election Day and making sure that you are still wearing the “I Voted” sticker given to you at the polls when you ask your students if they have voted. I’m not saying to ask who they voted for, just whether they had voted. It could be letting them know about the civic or volunteer responsibilities you dealt with last night or over the weekend. You may, in fact, already be doing some of these things.

I know what some of you are saying. We are, on the whole, an overworked and underpaid profession and none of us have the time to put something else on our plate. The truth of the matter is that, unless they are CEO's or come from money, most of the people who are entering local politics are in the same boat. I have heard stories in the political circles I have begun to move in of people dipping into their home’s equity or retirement funds to finance some of their campaigns. While you may not want to make that kind of a sacrifice, you can still make a difference in the life of your students and your community just by making an attempt.

There is a final reason we, as a profession, need to become more engaged -- one that we need to consider and consider quickly. We won’t get the problems faced by the academy solved by the “them” in government until we meet “them” and find out that they are us.


Matthew M. DeForrest is assistant professor of English at Johnson C. Smith University.


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