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Michael Roth

Michael Roth

Posted: October 31, 2008 09:40 AM

Participation as Education


In these last days before the election, many thousands of college students across the country are heading off-campus to work for candidates who they think will make a difference in their lives and in the lives of their fellow-citizens. Although universities have often been sites of great political agitation, students have rarely played such an important a role in electoral politics. Part of the reason this has changed, we know, is that Barack Obama has generated enormous excitement among young people across the country. As adolescent cynicism has given way to a deep hope for change, students are expressing their faith in the electoral system in the old fashioned way: they are participating in it.

On my own campus, Wesleyan University, this engagement in electoral politics has energized student and faculty life in powerful ways. Wesleyan has long been known as a progressive school in which students often express strong views about the importance of social justice. When Senator Obama gave the Commencement Address in the spring, he lit up the campus with his energy and gravitas, with his commitment to public service and with his call to students to take responsibility for the public sphere. But the political energies on campus are not confined to Obama supporters. The Wesleyan Republicans, a small but determined group, has been successful in airing its point of view, and in raising tough questions concerning the assumptions of more liberal students. Our campus is not an island unto itself, but instead an incubator of ideas and a forum for debate. Most encouragingly, students are taking these ideas and debates into neighborhoods across the country to advocate for their beliefs. Participation, once again, is key.

Our student government has suspended its meetings recently, and its members have signed up for community service and organized civic activism. They have been registering voters, traveling to swing states, or working on behalf of local candidates. Across the country many college campuses are seeing similar increases in student engagement. In large state universities and in small liberal arts institutions like Wesleyan, students are no longer content to watch electoral politics from the sidelines. It's their future on the line, after all.

As a teacher, I am delighted with this level of participation. Although some of my assignments might come back a little late, and there may be a drop-off in the use of the library's reading room, I know that the political work the students are doing is deeply educational. They are learning about their government, about their neighbors, and about what it means to bring people together in support of particular issues. They are also learning how to disagree in ways that won't preclude working together in the future.

At Wesleyan I often say that education isn't about watching other people do the research, it's about doing that work oneself. This election cycle is a key part of our students' political education because they aren't spectators. They are taking responsibility for the work of politics themselves. This is good for their education - and for our future.