Friday, September 12, 2008

Conflict and Politics in the Classroom

This term, my introductory composition class has a theme: education about voting and politics. One of my classes will be working with a local high school to produce documents that define and explain political labels and issues. The other will be doing the same thing without working with a high school (it's a 7:10 am class, and we couldn't find a class that meets at the same time).

For their first in-class writing assignment, I gave them the following 5 questions and asked them to write an essay on one:

1. In 1972, when 18 to 21 year olds were first given the right to vote, approximately 55% exercised their new right. However, by 2000, the percentage of young people voting had fallen to 40%. Though the numbers have risen a little since then, the percentage of youth voters is still much lower than it was in the 1970s. Why are young people voting far less often than they did in the 1970s?

2. The previous question asked why young people don't vote. This question asks how to change the situation so that young people vote at the same rate as people in other age groups. What solutions do you propose to encourage young people to vote?

3. Should all eligible voters be required to vote in presidential elections? Take a position on this issue and explain your reasoning in a well-developed essay.

4. Should high school students be allowed to wear t-shirts or pins advocating particular political candidates or criticizing political figures while they are at school?

5. At Lake Superior State University, a professor who has been teaching there since 1969 has been ordered by the administration (which had received an anonymous complaint that the materials were offensive) to remove from his office door items that reflect his conservative political views. Do you agree or disagree with the administration that he should not post these items on his office door? What kinds of materials should be considered offensive and inappropriate for the office door of a college professor?

I have two goals: the first, obviously, is to get a sense of how much they know about constructing essays. I'll review/teach them the 5 paragraph essay (and its relatives, the 4, 6, 7 and 8 paragraph essay ;) and talk about development of paragraphs with supporting ideas. The second goal is to get them thinking about why young people don't vote.

For the second class, I put them in groups and had them brainstorm outlines (thesis and supporting points) but I also asked them to think about challenges to the points. For example, if you say "young people don't vote because they're lazy," how would you challenge that point?

Two things came up:

First, I started talking about "yeah, but." Some years ago, I got into enneagram personality analysis and found I was a 6. An unhealthy 6 is known for being a "Yeah, but." And I have certainly been there. "Yeah, but" people are the ones who always have an argument with everything you say, not necessarily on a political level, but on a day to day level. "Hey, let's go to Starbucks!" "Yeah, but they don't really have decent food." "Want to go to see Tropic Thunder?" "Yeah, but I heard it's not that funny."

I explained that while "yeah, but" is bad when you're trying to figure out what to do tonight, it's actually a great mental exercise to do with problem-solving and analysis. "Young people are too lazy to vote." "Yeah, but they also have to work much harder today to afford their college education. They have to study more information, work 20-30 hours a week, do their extracurriculars, and so if they're too "lazy" to go vote, who can blame them?" When they start thinking like that, they will do deeper thinking.

The other thing I realized as I eavesdropped on conversations is that my students were not telling each other whom they planned to vote for. I found this FASCINATING. However, they also used "free speech" as a justification in many of their discussions. They think everyone has a right to free speech, but they are afraid of exercising this right! They realized that speaking your opinions has consequences; other people may judge you, and as first term students, they didn't want to be judged yet.

In other words, I think that another reason why young people do not vote is because they feel ignorant about the issues, and they have few to no safe places to explore these issues verbally.

On a personal level as a blogger/commenter, I don't always discuss things civilly. Then again, I'm generally talking with adults I feel comfortable with when I do get ranty. But I do think our young people are growing up in an atmosphere where people are afraid to discuss conflicts of ideas. (Of course, as a professional, I consider professional behavior in the classroom to be a very high priority.)

One of the problems with having discussions is that you have to agree on a set of facts first before you can discuss different ideas about applying belief systems, solving problems, and speculating about consequences. And I think that's one of the problems we're having--and young people are having. They don't know what's true.

And our media outlets sure aren't helping.


stranger said...

Yeah, but...
Couldn't resist!

I'm interested that you didn't include a "devil's advocate option," such as allowing a student to argue _against_ voting. Not voting can be a way to express satisfaction with, or indifference to, the outcome of an election. Our system doesn't allow the option of, "none of the above, and a pox on both your houses," so staying away from the voting booth could result from alienation, not laziness.

Or, a voter could assume that her vote wouldn't matter anyways. A red voter in a solidly blue state, for example, may conclude that casting her vote is largely symbolic.

Wendy said...

I'm sorry it wasn't clear, but I did allow that option. The whole point of the "yeah, but" was so that students could see there are multiple sides to the issues.

The last 3 questions were designed to be agree or disagree, take a position types of essays.