This has been one of the most enjoyable presidential elections in my experience as a college professor. My students have followed the ups and downs of the Obama and Romney campaigns with great interest. On the mornings following the presidential and vice-presidential debates, I’ve walked into classrooms that were buzzing with discussion, debate, and laughter. Students have wanted to have large class discussions about current politics, and a significant number of students have participated-more than those who participate in our regular class discussions, in fact.
I have permitted these discussions to a limited extent, as long we related the current situation to what we were studying. It allowed my students to engage in substantive critical thinking by comparing eras, values, and practices. In one case, this was hilarious: in my Early American History course, I asked students how they thought it would go if we followed the original practices of presidential elections, and whichever candidate got the second number of votes was automatically elected as Vice-President, forcing them to ponder a combined Obama-Romney White House. The looks on their faces were priceless.
My classes seem to be in a minority across the country, though. Though many pundits have explained the crucial role college students and the 18-24 generation can have a decisive effect on this presidential election, campaign interest and activity seems to have declined this time around. Harvard University, which is not too far down the road from where I teach, just released the results of a poll on college students and the election, and the results were sad, if unsurprising. According to Harvard’s Institute of Politics,
“Young voters [also] indicated a clear uneasiness with the electoral process, and with Congress. Disenchantment was strongest among voters between 18 and 24 years old. Four years ago, 43 percent of voters in that age group said they were politically active; now only 22 percent do.”
These results have been evident at colleges across the country. Rasmussen College’s infographic demonstrates that interest in this election has declined by 10% compared to the election of 2008. In The Telegraph, a mid-state Georgia news source, Ashley Hopkinson interviewed students and administration at Macon State College, Wesleyan College, Mercer University, and Fort Valley State College, and discovered that,
“While the colleges have had their share of voter registration drives, students say they have seen little political activism on campuses. There haven’t been any major rallies there for President Barack Obama or former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. And except for the discussions that go on during political science or history classes, there haven’t been many fiery college-campus debates extolling the virtues of either candidate.”
What Has Been Going on at College Campuses?
Election debates are traditionally held on college campuses across the country, and American colleges and universities have at various times been centers of fervent political activity, especially at times of national crisis, such as the Great Depression and Vietnam War. This time around, it’s different. Harvard Institute for Politics director John Della Volpe explained that the decline in youth voter interest can be explained in many ways:
“They’ve grown up with hyperpartisanship in Washington, a great recession where they see their friends and family members losing their jobs and their houses. Their views of politics have been shaped more by that than by the foreign-policy decisions made in the first part of the decade.”
This has meant that there have been fewer election-related activities on college campuses, including fewer student debates, informational events, fundraisers, etc.
The struggle to pay for college has no doubt also played a role, as students try to balance the demands of schoolwork, jobs, and families. It may seem impossible to find time to add yet another activity to already over-loaded schedules. Many students also live on campuses away from home, and may think that they cannot vote at either location for logistical reasons, which may be why the most common campus activity related to this presidential election has been voter registration drives, such as the one run by the Committee for Political Legislation and Action (CPLA) at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, which “aids on-campus voters with filling out absentee ballots and mails them on their behalf, thereby making the process of voter registration much smoother for busy Wellesley College students.” Similar drives have taken place on college campuses across the country.
Why College Students Should Care
As a college professor, I’m an old hand at arguing that students should be involved in politics or at least pay attention to the presidential election because it is part of their responsibilities as citizens. At the University of Connecticut (my own undergraduate alma mater) , students told The Daily Campus that the rising cost of college has caused them to consider the different candidate’s positions with regard to student loans and higher education funding. This issue alone should draw students into the political fray.
However, the plain fact is that even though some people may not like tax dollars going towards political activities at public or private colleges, political awareness and involvement is an absolutely necessary component to education. As the editors of the Wellesley College newspaper explained when they endorsed the voter registration drive of the school’s Committee for Political Legislation and Action, “An integral part of liberal arts education is understanding and being involved in the political process. A deeper appreciation and stronger sense of involvement in the political process constitutes a valuable learning opportunity that goes on outside the classroom.”
I wholeheartedly agree with that statement, which is why I never in my life had a moment with a student that made me more proud than what happened last week. One of my students has been steadfast in his refusal to register to vote. He does not think that his vote counts-and truth be told, I have my dark days when I reflect on the relative value of voting. However, last week he told me that he registered to vote. Later, a friend asked me if I knew how that student was going to vote, and if he was going to vote “the right way.” I told her that I didn’t know who he was going to vote for, that I didn’t care, and that it wasn’t my business. I am, however, proud that he has taken this first step toward more engagement and interaction in the world around him because this means that I have fulfilled one of the more important mandates of being a college professor.