Wednesday, February 08, 2012
Fixing the Fatalism
Have you seen any meaningful student political activity on your campus so far this year? I haven’t. (Admittedly, I don’t work in Iowa.)
I don’t think it’s because of general contentment. The recession is still very much in force from the perspective of people trying to get their first real job, and students have felt the effects -- I hope not too strongly, but still -- of increased tuition/fees and certain budget cuts. Half of the students on campus get some level of Pell grant, so we’re not talking about the anesthetized affluent here.
And it doesn’t seem to be because they’re more caught up in state and/or local politics, either.
I’ve heard talk at the national level of encouraging more student civic engagement, though most of that has been concentrated in the four-year liberal arts college sector, rather than community colleges. And even there, the talk I’ve heard has struck me as sort of tangential to what needs to be done. It’s fine as far as it goes, but there’s a more basic issue to address first.
For lack of a better term, I’ll call it “standing.” It’s a sense that the larger social and political world is theirs to address. Many of them simply don’t have it.
The faculty have seen the same thing. One professor who teaches some wonderfully thoughtful approaches to politics and the economy reports that her students are willing to engage when she discusses problems with them, but turn fatalistic when she turns to possible solutions. They’ve developed a sort of shrug.
To me, that’s a much larger issue than the usual statistics about the percentage of students who know, say, how many justices are on the Supreme Court. Yes, they should know that, but they’ll learn it when they want to know it. The trick is getting them to want to know it. When they have a context in which it matters, they’ll get the facts.
I just don’t know how to break through the fatalism. Filling in the facts without fixing the fatalism (say that five times fast!) doesn’t seem likely to achieve much. And color me skeptical that encouraging volunteerism -- as worthy as that is on its own terms -- is the same thing. Volunteerism can achieve wonderful things, but it doesn’t leverage state power. And if students here don’t leverage state power, others will.
In this light, the trend to try to reduce community colleges to workforce training centers strikes me as potentially undemocratic. Training is valuable, and there are students for whom it’s a great choice. But we also need time and space to convey to students a sense of belonging when the big social and political questions come up. If they’re going to be citizens, they need to feel welcome in the role.
Initial forays into politics are often callow and retrospectively embarrassing. That’s okay; it’s a stage in the maturation process. Better to make those rookie mistakes in a relatively safe setting.
That’s especially true when you consider the student body that community colleges tend to attract. Bluntly, our population is much more low-income and multiracial than the student body at most four-year colleges, and particularly when compared to the elite colleges that tend to get the spotlight in national initiatives for civic engagement. If the kids from elite backgrounds acquire a sense of political efficacy, and the kids who need Pell grants don’t, it’s easy to project future political consequences. If we’re serious about civic engagement, this is where we need to start. The kids at Swarthmore will be fine; the kids at the Community College of Philadelphia, I’m not entirely sure.
Generally we get in the news for political activism of the opposite kind... not all of our students realize they're not supposed to be overtly racist, for example. I blame Fox News.
At my SLAC, the young republicans were the only active politically group on campus. The democrats were basically silent. Which is interesting because we live in a highly democrat state and county. It burned up some of the more far left faculty that only the republicans were active on campus. (and that was 12 years ago)
Oddly enough, he was rolling along before the Iowa caucuses. Then, a few thousand people in Iowa shook hands with Rick Santorum and voted for him, and a few thousand people New Hampshire shook hands with and voted for Mitt Romney, and those few thousand people decided who the opposition for Barack Obama will be in the election.
So, unless you live in Iowa or New Hampshire, you have no influence on who the opposition nominates this election.
And frankly the younger faculty are in so much of the same boat that it's hard to motivate the students.
The trouble with Obama raising expectations so high in 2008 is that they then had so far to fall. Fatalism is the byproduct of bitter disappointment.
Once the government decided to choke off economic growth, it became hard for anyone except those who already have it made to be cheerful. Everyone in my circle believes that government statistics showing a recovery is underway are bunk.
I'm pretty fatalistic myself now, as are my adult children, just out of college.
Well, unless you think Paul's dissolving the US Dept. of Ed would help college students.
Not sure you can blame college students for NOT getting exciting about 1) the status quo or 2) people who ignore them even more than the status quo.
Yes, liberal arts types may claim that "students are the future," and politicians may cry that education is too important to be left to the teachers, but the fact is that schools rely on government funding (as they perhaps should) but government leaders don't want a more truly educated citizenry; they want workers who are too dispirited to complain, too tired to organized, too poor to live in anything but the next pay cycle. If our leaders really believed in democracy, education would be fully funded.
So what are we few to do about it? I haven't a clue. I haven't given up yet, but too many have.
The comment by Anonymous @9:56AM was interesting. My own personal experience is that you have the greatest influence on local politics, and local politics has a huge effect on quality of life. It is silly to ignore it just because it is so difficult for one person to change the national discussion about Social Security from (unearned) "entitlement" to (earned) "national fringe benefit" for working people. There are electoral consequences in local government, and low turnout makes individual action count even more.
BTW, I actually LOL'd when I read Edmund assert that short circuiting a depression and keeping it from becoming another Great one (solid analysis says 15% unemployment in 2010 and personal analysis says half the houses on my street vacant) followed by millions of private sector jobs constituted choking off economic growth!
I'm a FT community college professor and an activist, and I teach a freshman seminar that consists of working to do organizing around a campaign of the students' choice. They do light research, make videos, write letters, create proposals, stick to deadlines as a group, plan events, etc etc etc.
Obviously, this isn't the structural solution--this is my fed-up response to fatalism: to require political education and political engagement, and to give them serious course-credit rewards.
We'll see how it works. So far, it's pretty cool for the 20 or so students who take this course each semester.
You misspelled "black."
Yes, of course conservatives think that anything that would make Obama look like the mediocre leader he is would be falsified. He's way too black to be basically competent, but devoted to a pro-elite ideology.
Let's not mistake Obama's failure to do his job for what caused this crisis -- the reflexive hatred of "government," which, because our government defines us, really means reflexive hatred of America.