Monday, September 03, 2012

My Wish for Election Season

This year, for the first time since leaving grad school, I’d love to hear students on campus seriously discuss the election outside of class.

Admittedly, that’s a tall order.  Most of the national role models for political conversation don’t exactly make it look appealing; as Dana Gould put it, it’s professional wrestling, with ties.  The convention last week showed speakers ranging from ‘vaguely disappointing’ to ‘entirely fictitious,’ with a special category of ‘What was that?’ reserved for Clint Eastwood.  None of them came close to making an intelligent case for a coherent position.

Not that I expect a lot more from this week’s convention, either.  Even if nothing tops Eastwood for sheer weirdness, I’d be surprised to hear anything actually thoughtful.

In the last few national elections, I just haven’t heard students having actual conversations about politics.  

That’s not unique to students, of course, but it’s particularly disappointing.  Students are supposed to think big thoughts, think out loud, try on arguments for size, and generally practice being citizens.  Missing the opportunity to develop those skills here is a real loss.

Tragically, I suspect some of that comes from being at a community college.  At Snooty Liberal Arts College, it wasn’t hard to find students discussing politics, especially around the election.  Part of that was a function of leisure time, but I think part of it came from a sense of relevance.  At SLAC, we felt important enough to believe that our opinions mattered.  Many of the students here don’t seem to feel that important, and that’s disturbing.

In the late 90’s, the sociologist Nina Eliasoph wrote a brilliant book, Avoiding Politics, which was about the deliberate production of political apathy.  Among other points, she argued that one of the most powerful ways that real discussion gets short-circuited is through mandatory appeals to identity.  (“As a mother...”)  When identities are either highly charged -- as in race -- or very much in flux -- as in almost everything else at age eighteen -- it can be difficult to find a secure position from which to speak.  And when the larger issues are too poorly understood to form the basis for discussion, that tends not to leave much room.

In my ideal world, students would consider themselves important enough that their opinions would actually matter; therefore, they would make the effort to develop opinions.  And as long as I’m being idealistic, I’d love to see students (and the rest of us, really) get sophisticated enough that we could look at politics beyond the lens of team sports.  As our politics have become more polarized, it has become far less common to hear thoughtful people stray from a party line.  

Wise and worldly readers -- especially the academics among you -- have you seen settings in which young people have thoughtful discussions of politics?  What made it work?