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In the second of his series of TCSDaily dispatches from the Modern Language Association's annual confab, Nick Gillespie checks in with some professors for whom "getting kids engaged in politics" isn't just academese for brainwashing.

NEXT: Barry Happy to Be Retired

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  1. When I hit the link my browser has an epileptic fit. Is it just me?

  2. What Nick doesn’t address, and perhaps should, is why the literature departments should be concerned with the political engagement of their students at all. The American Chemical Society doesn’t have the same wringing of hands at its meetings.

  3. Tim- In part, because literature is always a product of an environment that includes politics, and often serves an overtly political role. Chemistry, so far as I can tell, exists independently of politics.
    That said, the ignorance of some English profs regarding politics is stunning.
    And can we please, please shoot the next jackass who suggests that college educations should be available to “anyone who wants one?”

  4. Nick — Does the end of the draft not come up in these plunges into the differences between the youth of the 60s and 70s and young folk of today?

  5. Three comments? Is this a hot topic or what? Nick, maybe you should stick to writing about Janet Jackson’s tits.

    More seriously, I think the statement to the effect that societies slide into tyranny whenever people aren’t involved in politics is non-empirical hot air. A little proof, please.

    Is it shocking that college kids don’t read the paper as much now as in 1972? In 1972 male college students were subject to something known as the draft, and there was a shooting war going on. These things tend to concentrate the mind.

    Today, a much larger percentage of young people attend college in the past. Shockingly, the average college student is dumber today than in 1972. This is not a big deal, although many people will insist that it is a big deal.

    Despite the serious, continuing problems resulting from the spread of Islamic fundamentalism, life today is pretty mellow, particularly if you happen to be a middle-class American. It’s not surprising that many young people would rather enjoy life than read David Broder.

  6. Re: the newpaper thing. The obvious follow-up question is whether college students are getting their news someplace else. Perhaps the intarweb, or that new-fangled talking box they’ve got these days.

  7. Number 6, do you mean the Information Superhighway? Is it done, yet?

  8. The whole thing sounds like from the ivory tower leaving out a large number of young adults not going to college. They throw words around like “Goebbelsian”, “Hirschian”. I suspect I’m not alone in not knowing precisely what the hell they are talking about.

    A hint to the illustrious representatives of academe: For Chrissake, quit calling them “kids”! (5 times in the article).
    They are adults, most of them over 18!
    Maybe starting to demand adulthood from them might go a long way to actually get them to take on adult responsibilities earlier in life.

    Instead we hear the same old shit: More government, more testing and, of course, throw more money at it.
    Not to leave the psychological angle out. What does it mean to “take them seriously especially when they appear to be obtuse”? Validate their obtuseness? Make them feel good?

  9. well I think I need to take back all those nasty comments about the MLA. If only becouse i am finding these articles Nick is writing has opened up a world i never even knew existed.

    It is like playing dungens and dragons as a 12 year old kid all over again.

  10. They throw words around like “Goebbelsian”, “Hirschian”

    Goebbelsian = rush limbah

    I don’t know what “Hirschian” means

  11. A hint to the illustrious representatives of academe: For Chrissake, quit calling them “kids”!

    Except that they are. Consider that public education won’t trust an 18-year-old high school senior with enough responsibility to carry a pocket knife, have a locked locker, or tote books in an opaque backpack. Why should we expect college freshmen to act like adults?

    What does it mean to “take them seriously especially when they appear to be obtuse”?

    Teach all those damn R kids to vote D like the grownups do.

  12. I think Nicks article (as usual) and this panel are very informative, but then again I work in academe. So many teachers I know go to work hoping that after they “open” their students eyes they will see things politically the “right” way…I think such teachers should try to take values out of their class to the extent they can: for example, when teaching Faulkner talk about what he believed and was trying to convey, and then when teaching Fitzgerald do the same. But if one must engage in values-talk in class then having a diversity of opinions and an open mind will help open other minds.
    BTW-Hirschian refers to E.D. Hirsch, a UVA prof who wrote a book called “Cultural Literacy” about two decades ago which argued that while no culture is superior to another it is very important to know the culture you live in *important for you sucess, not some cosmic reason* His work became the basis for much of the standardized testing found in things like VA’s Standards of Learning and the No Child Left Behind Act.

  13. LarryA,

    That’s because we can’t overwhelm them with all that freedom. So we do it in careful, scientifically developed steps.

    First, at 14, if they really screw up, we declare them monsters and send them to prison for life, then at 16, we send them on public roads with minimal formal training, at 17 they can get killed for their country, at 18 they can have sex unless the partner is younger in which case they will be registered sex offenders for life, at 21 then they have magically learned to deal with alcohol.
    They can mouth off any way they want and talk an incoherent lingo liberally sprinkled with “He was like … and then I was like…” They are owed limitless patience lest they get damaged for life.
    and so on, and so on.

    Hey, it’s all for the kids.
    And we adults find it all so cool, feel the need to take them seriously and descend to the same level. Gives us the illusion of being young, I guess.

  14. “which argued that while no culture is superior to another”

    Since I haven’t read Hirsch and don’t know the thesis, I hope it does not mean that all cultures are equally valid. I find little of value in fundamentalist muslim culture.
    Also, sure, in Hitler’s Germany in order to succeed you had to understand the culture, raise your arm and follow.

  15. Thank god for people like Nick Gillespie, who are willing to go to things like this, so the rest of don’t have to.

    Though I do really think we should have a GI-Bill style federal plan so that more kids will read the newspaper. Or maybe American newspapers need a Page 6 (or whatever it is) like they have over in Britain, to up their readership rates. A teaspoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, as someone once said.

  16. They throw words around like “Goebbelsian”, “Hirschian”

    “Goebbelsian” is a reference to comedian George Gobel, a frequent guest on “Hollywood Squares.” It means “a lot funnier than you remembered, actually.”

    “Hirschian” refers to caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, and means “a weirdly distinctive style of drawing that you see all over the place, but you can’t remember the name of the guy who does it,” or more broadly, “oddly familiar.”

  17. ?In the end, the panel didn’t really come up with any silver-bullet solutions to what all agreed was a stunning and troubling decline in student knowledge of and participation in not just partisan politics but civic engagement more broadly defined.?

    I think that they (meaning students) are just going to have to learn the hard way that it is extremely important to participate in government. Sooner or later the politicians are going to start ignoring the electorate and become oppressive (which they are already are in my opinion but it will only get worse as time passes). I?m afraid that is the only way to solve this problem (which scare the hell out of me because I?m only 23 year-old).

  18. With a lot of my colleagues at that very conference as we speak, this whole thing is very close to my backyard. So, first, thanks Nick for paying attention to it. Second, I think we can’t avoid being political in our classes; it’s just a matter of recognizing our own perspectives are just as tenuous as our students. For me, the struggle I am facing is how to be honest to my libertarian beliefs and yet not do the same thing the left is doing when I get into my comp class. My main effort, I think, will involve stressing the need to be willing to revise our positions at all times– student or instructor. Skepticism is the key for me.

  19. “My main effort, I think, will involve stressing the need to be willing to revise our positions at all times– student or instructor. Skepticism is the key for me.”

    Exactly. I wonder, though, whether it’s easier for a libertarian to subscribe to this philosophy. I mean, since so few people take us seriously, and since we don’t trust the positions of the vast majority of people (ie. the statists), it’s easier for us to question OUR OWN beliefs. Most people (firmly resolving to “one side” or “the other”) have an easier time thinking that they own the truth, since so many other people (ie. their fellow “left” statists or “right” statists”) agree with them.

  20. RE: the draft. Yes, at least one or two of the panelists noted that one reason why (mostly male) college students in the ’60s were politically engaged was the draft and Vietnam. Given time constraints, I wasn’t able to do a Web search to see what the participation rate of younger voters was from 1972 (when the voting age was reduced from 21) on. But I seem to recall it has always been considered low. More to the point, I don’t know if it has remained constant or not over time.

  21. Teach all those damn R kids to vote D like the grownups do.

    I thought it was just the opposite. “If you vote Republican as a 20-something, you have no heart. If you vote Democratic as a 50-something, you have no brain.”

  22. actually, the correct quote is “if you vote for either you’re a dipshit.”

  23. I find it humorous that another on-line publication I regularly read has a correspondent at MLA too…

    What the Press Editors Want

    Getting Along

  24. In part, because literature is always a product of an environment that includes politics, and often serves an overtly political role. Chemistry, so far as I can tell, exists independently of politics.

    There is a difference between teaching the political influences or impact of (mostly historical)literary works, and teaching your students to become politically engaged or teaching them current political controversies. Equivocating between the two isn’t a very sophisticated argument. Chemistry has had important influences in political life, too.

  25. what all agreed was a stunning and troubling decline in student knowledge of and participation in not just partisan politics but civic engagement more broadly defined

    Ya know, an awful lot of “civic engagement” happens through churches and faith organizations. I wonder how big a blind spot these professors have to that whole dimension of society.

    And I also have to wonder how much these professors devalue and diminish participation in partisan politics that is on the “wrong” side.

  26. I hadn’t realized it when I read the article, but

    Goebbelsian = rush limbah

    Is “Goebbelsian” actually a reference to Nazi PR man Goebbels? Good Gawd!

  27. When one digs into press accounts about the most tendentious classes in today’s universities and colleges, they are often freshman comp classes. Over the past two decades or so, many of the designers of composition curricula have consciously seen those classes as the ideal place for political indoctrination to a sort of standard left-wing agenda. As one professor friend of mine told me, she’s been in department meetings where comp doyennes have declared, “This is our best shot at getting into the minds of students.”

    That may explain that English class I took in college. One assignment was to write an essay in response to a certain essay in our little textbook. I recognized the essay (As a kid, I spent many hours in the county library), it was a reprinted magazine article that was a few years old. I thought the article was wrong when I first read it, and the intervening years had not changed my opinion. Apparently, I was the only student in the class that took a negative view of this essay. The instructor singled me out for not meeting the spirit of the assignment. After class, I asked him to explain the spirit of the assignment and the grade I received. I told him I followed the instructions and just wanted to be graded on my writing. He seemed surprised that I even questioned his grading.

    The same instructor had us break into small groups to help one another by offering constructive criticism. It was sitting in that little circle and reading pure drivel that made me realize that the stuff I tossed in the trash was better than the best stuff most of my fellow students cranked out. I was surrounded by the same quality of student in that English class as in high school, which is to be expected when so many go on to attend college.

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