Sunday, September 25, 2016


I remember watching one of the 1988 presidential debates in the common room of a dorm.  The college was in Massachusetts, and then-governor Dukakis was one of the candidates, so there was a distinct rooting interest among the crowd of maybe fifteen.  

Watching the debate in a large group is a different experience than watching it at home.  In a larger group -- some of whom you know well and some you don’t -- it starts to feel both more public and more like a sporting event.  Particularly good or awful lines elicit groans and cheers.  Sometimes other people respond strongly to moments you wouldn’t, which is revealing in itself.  

Last week Judith Shapiro posted a thoughtful essay on IHE about attempting to cultivate the sociological imagination among college students.  She focused on race, and on the moral obligation of faculty to provide “intellectual leadership” that comes from their disciplinary training.  

I’m fascinated with the ways to cultivate the sociological imagination, broadly defined, among students who don’t live in a dorm.  Elections, and especially debates, offer opportunities to do that.

That’s because, unlike many discussions of hot-button issues, debates are specific to a time and place but not precipitated by a crisis.  They offer enough rooting interest to draw people, but they aren’t necessarily as intensely personal as, say, discussions of racism.  (That’s not to deny overlap between the two…)  The finite number of options offered in a debate forces a certain honesty; given imperfect choices, what’s more important?

Community colleges often have lower political participation and voter turnout among their students than more elite places.  That has to do with a host of factors, ranging from parental income to commuter status to program choice.  But we shouldn’t settle for lower participation.  Our students are, in many ways, much more representative of the community as a whole than the student bodies of many elite places.  (“Town-gown” tensions seem relatively rare in the community college sector, because here, town and gown look like each other.)  To the extent that there’s a political participation gap among sectors, it tends to track the gaps seen in the broader society.

In other words, if we want our students to be represented, we have a positive duty to encourage them -- and equip them -- to participate.  “Watching parties” for high-profile debates offer easy chances to do that.  Discussions before and after can be even better.

I’ve heard plenty of denunciations of debates as “political theater,” and there’s truth to that.  But it’s also true that if we want widespread participation, we need some element of theater.  That’s neither new nor especially bad.  It just requires getting past the stuffy pseudo-solemnity that turns off so many people.  

Administrators and staff can provide time and space for discussions like these.  Faculty can provide expertise and rapport.  Done right, watching parties can convey several messages.  First, they convey that politics matters.  That should seem obvious, but so many people don’t vote -- especially among younger people from modest backgrounds -- that it’s worth repeating.  More importantly, they convey that students have a right to participate, and to be taken seriously.  Students don’t often get that message.  Between time demands, vocational worries, and streamlined curricula, many students absorb the message that politics is for other people.

Politicians vote accordingly.

Community colleges are admirably, even naively, democratic in their mission.  But they often stop there, shying away from anything that smacks of controversy.  

I understand why colleges can’t (and shouldn’t) endorse candidates or parties.  But endorsing the political process strikes me as entirely fair.  Students at elite places routinely have debate watching parties.  Why can’t ours?