Wednesday, February 09, 2011


Conversations I Never Hear

I overhear a fair amount of student conversation, just walking the hallways and occasionally eating in the cafeteria.

Words I haven’t heard: Egypt, Mubarek, Obama, oil, revolution, war.

Words I have heard: class, facebook, job, work, girlfriend, assorted cursing

Admittedly, this is an unscientific sample, and far from comprehensive. Somewhere, someone may be having an earnest, searching discussion of, say, American foreign policy. But I haven’t seen or heard it.

Although my generation was judged disappointingly apolitical by the one before it, I recall plenty of political conversation among students at, say, lunch, in my time at college in the late 1980’s. That’s certainly not to deny the presence of other concerns -- sex, parties, and in-jokes were mainstays -- but it wasn’t odd to overhear students talking about elections, or the latest political controversy, or some new horrifying or exciting historical event they’d just discovered. Many of the comments were either glib or retrospectively horrifying in their naivete, but hey, at least we were trying.

(Compared to some of the current cable news punditocracy, though, I’ll take the naivete, thanks.)

As callow as much of the discussion was, at least there was some sense of entitlement to discuss big issues. Some of the heat in the less pleasant conversations stemmed from a sense, right or wrong, that how we understood something actually mattered. We assumed a certain standing to address Big Questions.

I don’t know to what extent the apparently complete absence of that kind of discussion here is generational and how much is class-based; the average familly income of students at my cc is nothing close to what it was back at SLAC. But the difference is striking, and I worry about it.

Politics makes great fodder for developing critical thinking skills, since it’s shot through with ambiguity and conflicting points of view. It’s also well-suited for developing communication skills; thoughtful political discussion takes practice. Even with practice, most of us with fairly distinct points of view (hi!) can sometimes slip into impatient dismissiveness, just out of frustration. For nineteen-year-olds who haven’t given politics much thought, the whole enterprise may well look like the most boring and inscrutable spectator sport ever.

But it shouldn’t be. Politics makes good subject matter for building certain skills, but the substance also matters in itself. In my more idealistic moments, I like to imagine that part of what colleges do is equip students to be thoughtful citizens of a republic. Part of the reason that student politics historically have tended toward the callow and strident is precisely that college is where many of them are grappling with difficult ideas for the first time. Those initial efforts are bound to be awkward; it would be surprising if they weren’t. The idea is to have those embarrassing early attempts happen in a relatively safe environment, so that as the students move on with life, they can develop more thoughtful perspectives.

If there’s any truth to that -- and I have to believe that there is -- then skipping that crucial early step will have consequences. They won’t have had the experience of long-form political bullshitting, in which they follow an idea until it runs out of gas. (There’s something really humbling about that.) They won’t have found themselves in the awkward position of discovering a flaw in an idea they had espoused with great passion. (In my experience, it leads to that same burst of cold that hits you right after you realize that you left your wallet at home.) At most, they may have experienced politics as a particularly mean and pointless source of irresolvable conflict.

Which it can be. But it can also be more than that.

I hope that this is just me showing the same generational deafness as the Boomers showed my cohort; somewhere under the surface -- maybe online? -- students are having passionate political debates. If that’s all it is, then I happily plead guilty to oblivousness and creeping fogeyism. But I don’t get that impression. Instead, I suspect that the disconnect from politics is either class-based or generational, and I’m not sure which is worse. If it’s class-based, then I expect the one-sided class warfare of our politics to get even worse over time, with tragic consequences. If it’s generational, and even the rich kids can’t be bothered, then I don’t know what will hold up the system. Yes, 2008 supposedly featured an unusually high youth voter turnout, but I haven’t seen any signs of actual political engagement since then.

Wise and worldly readers, I hope I’m just out to lunch on this one. Are folks at cc’s also not seeing what I’m not seeing? Are folks at more elite/wealthy institutions seeing political engagement among students?

I'm thirty, and my generation didn't protest either. I'm not sure where today's students' get their news, but I still get a lot of mine from The Daily Show and snarky/sincere We all read The Onion, and have ever since high school. I tried to go to a war protest or two, but the singing and speeches felt like playacting, and seemingly half the people there carried signs about animal rights or gay marriage or something else unrelated. My generation cared about politics, but we were (and are) cynical as hell.

My younger brother (26 - polysci and philosophy major) and sister (20 - foreign affairs major) care too, and so do their friends. I've hung out in some of their basements and bedrooms with them a few years ago, and they (like me) spent a lot of time delineating everything that was wrong with the world. But I don't remember any sense that any of us could do anything about it.

My younger siblings and I all watch the Daily Show, but what about the kids who get all their news from the TV shows the Daily Show mocks? I think the kids in your cc probably do... Poorer people watch crappy TV news (they have more important things to worry about, and just want what's accessible) and don't necessarily feel like the understand what's going in the world, or if they do feel they understand after watching our crappy media, it's a crappy understanding. Richer people know the news media sucks and feel helpless before the might of the corporate mainstream. Either way, no one is inspired to take to the streets.
My undergrad was a TLAC (teeny liberal arts college), and I'm guesstimating that most of the students were middle class (I graduated in 2007). My larger group of friends were among the more politically conscious on campus. We discussed politics and current events in classes (history and sociology, for the most part - I sure don't remember any in English), not so much in the halls or the cafeteria. And I'm sure we did mention them during meals sometimes, but we tended to focus on other things.
Our graduate students are very good at talking about Obama. Problem: they get their talking points from Fox and Friends.

There is a lot of political ranting on facebook - here's a humorous summary of what happens:
Maybe it was the group I hung out with but we talked about politics and world events often. Not just in class. My UG was 2000-2004, so needless to say 9/11 was a major part of our college experience.
That being said, I know that many didn't. I know many in my generation are fairly apathetic because we feel that we can't/won't be able to change the world until all those in power are gone. But that won't be till we are old and gray and our children are plotting our demise.
Do you ever hear "budget cuts" in their conversation? Local politics is just as important as international politics, particularly when there isn't a draft.

My students are usually talking about homework.
There wasn't much political discussion during my undergraduate years, 88-93. That said, I don't hear much conversation about politics among my colleagues, either.

I'm suspect it's a techie thing -- my degree was in computer science and I work for a software firm. People who care passionately about politics go into other fields, such as law.
Hi there, just started reading your blog, I'm a Junior at a SLAC college. At least among my friends, I hear discussion to the point of ad nauseam from a lot of my friends. This is includes economic policies, Egyptian current events, opinions about the political parties, perspectives on evolution, etc. Between hearing some rather heated arguments on distance runs, in the Dining Hall (free New York Times provided), and in my apartment, I feel like sometimes I can't escape it. I acknowledge that my school is a little more hoity-toity than most, and that we certainly express just as much if not more toilet humor and your-mom jokes, but please do not think that ours is a completely silent generation.

A friend's recent facebook status: "The violence is devastating. Be strong, Egypt. Those who believe in justice are on your side and their hearts are with you."
I suspect that a lot of it is class-based, some of it is discussions happening online instead, and some of it is perception. While you may hear bits of conversations in the halls, etc., you probably hear a lot fewer of them than you did when you were participating in them. This can lead to a skewed perception.

When I was in college 10 years ago, I don't remember a lot of conversations about politics in the hallways, but we did have them. They just tended to take place in other contexts, like late-night bull sessions.
I think this is entirely dependent on the particular students. I certainly had many discussions of religion and politics with my friends when i was at cc in the early/mid 1990s.

And Mary, rich people are the corporate mainstream. Your distinction between what rich people do and what poor people do disgusts me.
I think the disparity is primarily class-based. If a person has dire and immediate problems (say, making rent or feeding their kids,) they are likely to focus on immediate circumstances. How (they ask) does knowing about Egypt get them a job in Small Town, USA?

My undergrad (98 - 2002)was at a large state university, and grad school (2002 - 2006) was a SLAC. My circle of friends at both schools was quite interested in Big Picture stuff, though there was more visible political awareness/activism at SLAC. I also coach and judge collegiate speech and debate. I've spent a lot of weekends surrounded by hundreds of kids discussing Big Picture stuff and developing their critical thinking skills. These students are from a variety of schools (CC's, SLAC, state schools, religious colleges) from all around the country. I realize, of course, speech geeks are hardly representative of any college population, but there ARE pockets of active and aware students out there.
And ditto to Anastasia's disgust with Mary's comments. Poor people watch crappy news and believe it, but rich people know better? Holy cow, that's awful.
I agree that this is about class more than anything, and about the differences between going to a commuter cc and going to a residential slac. I'm going to bet that one thing that may be going on is the people your students eat lunch with are not, in fact, their best friends, but rather are a random collection of acquaintances, at least much of the time. And political conversations are sensitive, and I'll bet your students aren't interested in losing the tenuous connections to others that they have by getting into heated political debates over their sandwiches.

Also, are you talking about politics while you eat your lunch? I know I'm not. Because lunch is down time - especially if it's jammed in between a full day of classes. Lunch is a break from critical thinking, and that really isn't the end of the world. It's just lunch.
I often ask my students why they never read or watch the news. "It's too depressing," they reply (this is especially characteristic of Utah students, who feel intense pressure to be cheerful and positive all the time). To which I respond that closing your eyes to other peoples' depressing circumstances is an amoral position, if not an immoral one. They shrug, and we hit impasse. But it troubles me too.
Also upset with Mary's comment. I'm months away from 30, my brother is her brother's age we grew up middle class and we're not nearly as cynical as all that. I did participate in protests. We don't watch humor news. Please don't lump YOUR experience as a whole generation. If you feel so helpless, you haven't learned enough about the media yet and you've given up. But not all of us have.

I'm not sure I understand what's lesser news. What's not on cable? How can that be if Fox news is on cable? But I might be too poor right now to get that, as I can't afford to watch to watch the Daily Show. Oh yeah, I teach journalism and mass media, and am able, despite my adjunct income to get access to news. It's not a class thing.
I think it is a reflection of the type of campus more than anything. I went to a SLAC where the student body resided almost entirely in dorms, and typically with the same roommates for all four years. There was a level of friendship and trust as well as plenty of time to talk about politics and other deep issues (like religion).

The first CC I worked at was very small and very rural. But it had dorms! In fact better than 50% of the student body lived in the dorms. As a result many of these same discussions were overheard on campus, and from what students told me, were continued in the dorms.

I do not hear these conversationso at the CC I am at now. Eventhough the CC is only slightly bigger (still small by national standards) rural and very similar economically and socially. The main difference between the campus is that the CC I am at now has no dorms and is a commuter campus with a large online population. Either the students just don't get to know each other well enough to talk about bigger issues like politics and religion or they feel more uncomfortable talking about these things in the more public setting of a commuter campus.
You know, the Egyptians didn't talk about politics much in public . . . until they did.

Right now, our government is poorly run and determined to ignore the needs of its constituents. So we tend our gardens and wait for the times to roll around.

Anyways, this is all class-based. Your students have been disenfranchised and constantly misinformed since birth. It's hardly surprising (or even inappropriate) that they've checked out.
I was and am a perpetual student starting college in 1966. Politics dominated our conversations through about 1977. Now, I work at a small, rural, poor community college. I rarely over hear a political conversation amongst our students. True, bumper stickers on a few vehicles tout slogans. The most ironic: a pick-up truck covered with Tea Party stickers. I haven't yet mentioned to the owner that we are an organ of the government he wants to limit...
I'm agreeing with the other commenters that I'm not sure this is the kind of things students talk about in the hallways or at lunch. My freshman comp students (I'm at a regional comprehensive students) often surprise me by how much they know about world events, when the subject comes up in class--but it's definitely not what they're chattering about in the classroom before the period starts, or what I hear them saying in the halls afterwards.

Also, in re: class: a lot of my students, and I bet a lot of yours, have close family and friends in the military; some of them are ROTC or are returned veterans themselves. You'd better believe they know and think more about (certain aspects of) our current wars than students at wealthier or more elite campuses.
Er, regional comprehensive COLLEGE.
Sure it's class-based. What isn't?

I went to college during the 60s (and 70s and 80s because I was in no unseemly hurry to leave graduate school). A big difference between the Vietnam era and today is the draft. You can bet that protesters at anti-war rallies today would look much different if the Selective Service System was doing more than merely registering young men.

Another observation: Nearly 100% of my students are working-class Chicano/Latinos. All of them self-identify as "middle-class."

I'm 27 now, so a solid generation after you. I'm an N=1 for it's not a generational thing.

That said, it's going to be biased by my specifics. In CC, I hung out with the speech geeks. At my undergrad uni, I hung out with my eco-friendly vegetarian co-op people.
If anything, it's been after moving to Pennsylvania for grad school that I've had the least politically engaged social group (despite living near the state capitol and going to talk to my reps once, going to Obama rallies and getting connected in to the internet systems he worked so well, and realizing, with no small amount of alarm, that the news was now the most engaging thing on TV... in other words, I've become more personally oriented toward politics, but not *socially* so).

Technically, most of the people I associated with were fairly poor. But SES is about more than yearly income, and there were a lot from educated families. So it's possible it's partially a class thing.
(@rented life- it's not a *money* thing. That doesn't mean it doesn't covary with class in a potentially casual direction. If those that appear middle class or upper class get positive social conditioning for expressing views about politics a lot more than those that appear lower class do, it's a class thing).

Actually, since I've seen it work so well at a CC I've gotta say- if you don't see engagement in these issues on your campus and you want to, invest in your speech team.
Hey there! I am a recent graduate a of CC that at times sounds an awful lot like yours, (I imagine many of the decent ones are fairly similar.) Some thoughts:

1) Most community college students do not hang out in the "social" areas" or campus. For many of us, our social lives are rooted elsewhere, and school is like another job we go to - so we do our work, study and go home. If your school is like mine, then a lot of those cafeteria kids are clusters of ex-highschool classmates that all still hang together. It is sometimes hard for friendships to mature, and even if you are politically motivated, you might not discuss this with the kid from 7th grade life science who you occasionally play D&D with.

2) These conversations are happening, and as you pointed out, often online. In fact, the community college students I know are at times /more/ likely to point out what's wrong with the world than others I see online. My facebook is a diverse collection of urban professionals, kids from my suburban hometown, fellow community college students, and a few others. I can tell you in the past week I've seen more politic status updates from my classmates than any other social group.

3) It's lunch. (Or dinner. Or whatever.) We've worked hard. Politics is worthy and stimulating, but also exhausting. I am known as an overly-politicized feminist progressive to many; but even I sometimes just want to shoot the shit and eat my sandwich. (Especially if I have just had to, say, attempt to dismantle a fellow classmates argument that the "Black Mammy" stereotype is good for African-American women. Yes, this actually happened once.)

So don't despair! There is hope, yet. :)
Dean Dad, if I didn't know better I'd suspect you've been reading Allan Bloom on the side. :) He'd say that students don't talk about those big issues because we don't encourage them to and point out that all discussion of class in this thread conveniently avoids our (the faculty) responsibility. We moan about capitalist inequality to cover our own inadequacy.

Speaking as a former student in Professor Paul Wellstone (D-MN)'s political science department, I can confirm that teachers make a difference in this sort of thing.
I'd agree with Jrant. I teach science at a rural, low-income area CC and the students talk about personal issues in life. They talk about jobs, work hours, if hir car will start tomorrow morning, whose watching the kid(s), health issues, paying rent, and dating/marrying/divorcing. If pressed, most of them seem to have an inkling of what's going on in the world around them but, basically, have more immediate and urgent issues to tackle. Taking on Big Picture topics and tasks just doesn't top the list of things to do.

I try to incorporate current events when I can but there is only so much I can do when the focus must be on solving problems using dimensional analysis and learning the language of science. And, owing to the very low tax base and continued state cuts, we will not be starting a speech or debate team anytime soon.
I didn't mean to be controversial. I was trying to address Dean Dad's "It's a class thing" argument. I think there are good reasons that kids at a community college might be less interested in or aware of politics than kids at a fancy-schmancy SLAC. Less free time? Cable / internet / out of market newspaper subscription prices? Not worried about distant political problems because they have pressing practical problems?

In any case, I wasn't condemning them, I was condemning the media. Local network news is terrible. Fox news is terrible. Last time I watched national nightly news, it was pretty terrible. The local newspapers that are still in operation are just wire stories and advertising.

People who don't have to commute to work and then to campus and then go home to their families where they have responsibilities (ie, SLAC students) can get their news from other sources, and in my experience these are the people who are more into the media-criticism shows/websites/whatever. Not because they're smarter, just because they can afford to be. But they also aren't necessarily passionately political, because they're so damn cynical.

That's all I'm saying. People who consume our horrible media are too poorly informed to be politically active, and people who are cynical about our horrible media are too cynical to be politically active.

That these categories partially line up with class is just another example of the poor being exploited. Through lack of other resources, they are more at the mercy of the horrible media than the rich, and it's not fair to them.
My students are freewriting every day, but politics rarely come up, even with students just back from Iraq and Afghanistan (Not something they discuss with outsiders, I think.)

My advanced students are pushed in one assignment to place themselves in some kind of historical perspective. Most of them have no idea what that might look like and wind up writing about that day in middle school when the World Trade Towers were destroyed.

Honestly, either they have no opinions or they have Rush Limbaugh's opinions or they (a few) have the opinions of a Wobbly just come in from a time machine trip.

The last thing I want my students to do is to recycle someone else's thinking and attitudes--they already do that without further encouragement--, and politics is not an area where there is a lot of original thinking to start with.

So I certainly never bring up the subject and, frankly, just walk down the hall in the other direction when I hear ranting about welfare cheats, illegal immigrants, today's loss of standards, sex in movies, abortion, and all those other dumb topics.
Maybe this is a reflection of what I teach (political science), but my students are talking about this kind of stuff all the time. Not just in class, either - I see it on facebook, in emails they send me, in conversations in the halls of our office area, in on-campus events hosted by student groups, etc.

We also have a fairly activist department (in terms of faculty, as well as students) and a couple of cross-disciplinary programs that encourage both faculty & students from different humanities & social science fields to interact on a regular basis. So there's a structure already in place to foster interesting conversations.

And lest anyone assume this only happens at SLACs or R-1s - I teach at a comprehensive regional university where most of our students probably had very little international exposure, prior to starting their college experiences.
Where I work, we have a large Egyptian-American and Arab-American community. I have several students who grew up in Egypt and nearby countries. They are quite interested in the current situation and some have been active in demonstrations.

I am 60 and when I was a freshman in college, we had the Vietnam Moratorium in the fall of 1969 and then were part of the massive student takeovers/strikes in the wake of the Cambodian invasion and the Kent State killings in May 1970. Our university gave us a two-week fall recess in 1970 to work in election campaigns, as I and many of my friends did.

A month of my undergrad days rarely went by without some sort of political action on campus. I bet I went to a hundred demonstrations or marches, mostly against the war, but also against state budget cuts, the refusal of the Soviet Union to let Jews emigrate, the early Earth Day celebrations, support for defendants like the Black Panther 21 or the Seattle 8.

I also remember as a faculty member attending massive anti-apartheid demonstrations in the 1980s, so it wasn't just us now-elderly folks.
I've also had several military vets in my classes, and they rarely bring up their service as part of class discussion. One of these students told me he doesn't participate in other classes because there is an overwhelmingly liberal, anti-war slant among his classmates: he doesn't want to be the one dissenting voice in the room. I suspect liberal-leaning students may feel the same way in overwhelmingly conservative environments.
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