A few months ago, I had a conversation with a highly intelligent colleague who told me that he was thinking of not voting in the presidential election because none of the candidates were "in touch with the coming revolution," represented by the Occupy Wall Street protests. I tried to explain that there were great differences between the candidates on a host of other important issues, to say nothing of the critical nature of Supreme Court appointments over the next four years. But I’m not sure I convinced him.
This upsets me more than some well-informed person casting a thoughtful vote for a candidate I oppose because that candidate matches his or her values. I respect that, however alien it may feel to me. But when a colleague or friend fails to understand the potential cost of his or her political purity, it reminds me that there is a gaping hole in our process of civic and political education.
A Delicate Balance
My concern is with ignorance about our political system and the complexities of political decision-making. I'm concerned about a lack of political street smarts. I'm concerned with the naive expectations that any politician can operate purely out of idealism. I'm concerned with the belief that a politician is tainted and lacking integrity if he or she makes compromises or political deals.
I recognize that our schools can't change all of this, but I'd like them to at least help reduce the odds of naive, uninformed, historically challenged political behavior. I'll gladly risk the possibility that some of these young people will choose to join a political faction I oppose. This is not about schools training kids to vote for a particular party, or to be conservative or liberal. It's about them understanding the complexities of politics.
The best way to become truly street smart about politics is to experience it. So I'd like to see every school have a political boot camp or the equivalent, with mandatory political experience, classroom simulated and/or community based. I purposely use the term "boot camp" because I think politics is a tough business that sometimes does feel like a war with the absence of physical violence.
I think a major part of the boot camp needs to focus on helping kids to understand through firsthand experience the classic tension between idealistic and morally driven political motivations and realpolitik, pragmatic, power-oriented politics. No U.S. political leader can be successful without highly effective realpolitik strategies and actions. No leader can be a truly positive force for improving the quality of our lives without idealistic and morally driven strategies and actions. Balancing the two -- making compromises needed to survive in one's elected position, pass legislation, negotiate with foreign powers, and simultaneously maintaining the integrity of one's own values and beliefs -- is a daunting challenge. This is not taught in most of our schools.
We do know that participation in student government doesn't do this because most student governments are focused on planning dances, not on actual governance.
So here are few ideas.
There could be a whole school project like a mock political convention. When I was teaching high school, we had a mock Republican convention. It didn't lead to the students all becoming Republicans! It did give them a fuller understanding of the nature of political campaigns. Pre-convention activities included rallies, students acting as campaign heads and public relations people, debates, seeking endorsements, fliers, behind the scenes deals, media reporters, and finally, a convention itself.
A social studies department colleague and I also staged a political campaign in which we ran against each other for superintendent of schools. The actual superintendent happily participated and played with the power he had to make an endorsement! We had debates, candidate "teas," fliers and rallies.
In 2008, Townsend Harris High School in Queens, New York simulated the full election campaign as a major school-wide activity. As the coordinator noted: "It's a wonderful lesson in civics for high school students. They become very savvy and critical, because they want to make their vote count. They don't want to choose someone based on a sound bite."
Or the training could be integrated on a smaller scale as part of the social studies curriculum. The Buck Institute for Education, an international leader in project-based learning, has a superb unit entitled On the Campaign Trail. Students act as media consultants for a local political campaign and decide how to best "market" a flawed candidate, given local issues and voter characteristics. As the unit guidelines indicate, "Ethical dilemmas arise as students learn about the realities of campaigning for office today, providing the teacher and students with an opportunity to critically examine the U.S. election system."
But these are just a few examples of the vast wealth of resources available on the web for this purpose. A quick Google search will turn up many links to schools holding conventions, and simulations being used by schools and individual teachers.
Teaching the Political Process
Additionally, there are also excellent media resources available. Take a look at Vanessa Roth's The Third Monday in October, a film about 11 candidates running for student body president in four middle schools. The elections took place in 2004, but the new edition (available in February) updates this to 2009 with a follow-up on the candidates set against the backdrop of Barack Obama's inauguration.
The TV series The West Wing is a superb resource for teaching about the complexities of politics. If I were teaching social studies today, I'd use the episode guide as a quick way to pinpoint episodes that would specifically fit in my classroom. The DVDs are widely available, frequently through local public libraries.
Two excellent new books, No Citizen Left Behind and Making Civics Count: Citizenship Education for a New Generation, although more broadly focused, contain some excellent ideas for political education.
There's still time before this year's presidential election to have students engage in a competition in which they each predict the outcome in highly contested states such as Ohio, Florida and Virginia. To do this, they will need to engage in thorough research of the social, economic and political demographics, the advertising campaigns, appearances by the candidates, party registrations and poll results. A close examination of each campaign's strategies in these states would also be illuminating. Think about how engaged these students might be on election night, as well as how much they'd learn.
There are teachers in almost every high school who are capable of instituting a form of political training that fits that school. That's not the problem. The challenge is in making this a priority in a climate in which English and math test scores are the priorities and social studies is not. In a democracy, we get the government we deserve. John Stuart Mill noted that long ago. But we still don't seem to get it. It's apparently easier to blame the people we elect than reform our way of teaching politics.
Of course we also need compensatory political boot camps for all the adults who are still challenged in terms of political savvy. But that's another story!