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?