Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Dog That Isn’t Barking

Sometimes, the dog that doesn’t bark is more telling than the dog that does.

Massachusetts has a gubernatorial election next month.  The incumbent is term-limited out of office, so in terms of incumbent effects, it’s an open seat.  

But from walking around campus, you wouldn’t know it.

I’m not the only one to notice the odd silence.  Last week I had a wonderful conversation with someone from the student senate.  I asked him whether, in his travels around campus, he ever heard students discussing politics.  He indicated that he hadn’t -- ever -- and even seemed surprised at the question.  Later, when I asked about campus wifi coverage, I got an enthusiastic and detailed response.  I couldn’t help but notice the contrast.  And that’s not intended at all as a criticism of him; I think he accurately reported what he has seen.  It’s the accuracy that concerns me.

I don’t buy the oft-heard argument that students are “apathetic.”  They do a lot of community service, for example, and they often go to great lengths to help each other.  Yes, some students are far too burdened with paid work, classwork, and family obligations to look up, but that’s hardly universal.  Other student organizations do quite well, so I can’t just write off lack of engagement to lack of time.  

Granted, neither of the major-party candidates has the entertainment value of, say, a Rob Ford.  But that’s okay with me.  Besides, over the years, I’ve seen students get worked up over candidates as tepid as Mike Dukakis and Al Gore.  I don’t think that entertainment value is the critical variable.  And the outcome of the election is very much up for grabs, so it’s not a matter of tuning out an election that amounts to a formality.  Although it votes Democratic at the Presidential level, Massachusetts has frequently elected Republican governors.  (The incumbent, Deval Patrick, is the first Democrat in that office since Dukakis.)  The polls I’ve seen indicate a close race.  If anything, that should increase interest.

Political disengagement is nothing new, of course; political scientists have built careers studying it.  (The best treatment I’ve seen was by the sociologist Nina Eliasoph, whose book Avoiding Politics is simply genius.) The surprise for me is that it seems to have gone from commonplace to dominant to ubiquitous.  In the past, I could usually find at least a few small groups of activists.  Not any more.

I suspect ,though I can’t prove, that political discussion is more common at places with students largely from the upper middle and upper classes.  (Readers who work at places like that are invited to confirm or reject this idea.)  Even there, it’s probably a small minority of students who pay much attention, but at least some do.  Here, if anyone does, they’re awfully quiet about it.

It seems to be largely a sense of ownership.  Students whose backgrounds suggest that they wouldn’t be taken seriously in the political world tend to tune out, thereby fulfilling the prophecy. They think of politics as something that applies to other, and usually older, people. Education can help with that to some degree, but ‘knowing’ and ‘being moved to action’ are very different things.  The second one is harder to convey if it isn’t already there.

It’s a missed opportunity.  If students voted in large numbers, they could affect budget priorities.  Because they don’t, and others do, they cede authority to people with other interests.  The results of that are clear.

Wise and worldly readers, have you found successful ways to encourage a sense of civic ownership in students?  Or should I just stop being surprised that the dog doesn’t bark?