UCLA's annual survey of college freshmen attitudes is touted as evidence of a rising tide of social conservatism in the young. Support for casual sex and abortion is at an all time low. But the survey also found a record low 25.9 percent of freshmen who think that "keeping up with political affairs" is an important life goal. And only 14 percent of freshmen say that they frequently discuss politics with their peers.
What does that mean? At first glance, it appears that these freshmen have reached the same conclusion as conservative luminary Paul Weyrich, who called recently for a conservative retreat from the political arena.
But this raises two important questions: "What is politics?" and "What is the political arena?" For these college freshmen, it is almost certainly something different than it was for Weyrich's generation as it came of age.
As one who is both a teacher and student of politics teaching introductory American government as I finish up my graduate degree the biggest challenge I face is overcoming two prejudices. The first is that politics is nothing more than petty bickering between rivals for power that, in the end, has no real relevance to the lives of students. The second is that the study of politics is the boring survey of facts and information about the institutions wherein these petty power-lords convene.
Most students have never considered the questions we really ought to examine in politics, such as, "What does it mean to be a human being?" "What are the political consequences of that?" "What did America's Founders mean when they said that all men are created equal?" and "What is justice?"
Why haven't students examined these questions? Why don't they know that that is the real substance of an education in politics? Because all too often, it is not their experience. In fact, the study of politics has been as petty and boring as students say it is.
To demonstrate this, another interesting aspect of UCLA's survey becomes relevant. It shows rising student disengagement not only from politics, but also from academics. Only 32.9 percent of students surveyed report doing six or more hours of homework a week; 60.3 percent report coming late to class.
In addition, 76.9 percent of students report that their reason for going to college in the first place is "to be able to get a better job," while another 74.6 percent list "to be able to make more money." There is nothing wrong with these goals. But it is odd that there was not more interest in education as an end in itself particularly among people who are so young.
This raises even more questions: "What is an education for its own sake?" "What does it mean for a student in today's university to enrich his mind?" Now there's the rub.
I am often astonished at the reaction from students including many juniors and seniors when they are asked to read a book such as the Federalist Papers in my class. That book is crucial to any understanding of American politics. But the very idea of reading even portions of such a big book strikes terror in their hearts. Often, sometime in the middle of the semester, this terror turns to acceptance if the student is diligent. Sooner or later, acceptance graduates into understanding. But the terror is the amazing thing. Why do students assume that these important works are off limits to them?
With very few exceptions, students tell me early on that their interest in studying American government extends only so far as meeting the school's requirement. They tell me that they found high school government classes insufferably boring.
"But did you find it difficult?" I ask. "Oh, no, not difficult. Just, well, I don't know, pretty boring." "What did you have to read?" I ask. "Oh, just a textbook. Nothing like what we're reading now. It was a lot easier." "But it was boring," I remind them. "Yes, it was." Too often, high school and college courses are a menagerie of simple-minded propaganda which is spoon fed to students until they either accept what they are told or give in to avoid the boredom of having it repeated.
The "education" of this generation has been an education in complaisance. Accept whatever crazy opinion is asserted because if you contradict it, you will offend. If you offend, you will hurt their self-esteem. Besides, who are we to contradict or question? All "truths" are equally important.
With that kind of background, it should come as no surprise that students find politics boring and petty. And with that kind of "education," we shouldn't be surprised that students disdain academics. There is nothing ennobling about it. Better to focus on a career or making money that, at least, is solid.