Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Fixing the Fatalism

Fun trivia fact: this is a Presidential election year.  But you wouldn’t know it from walking around campus.  

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.