November 2008

The Academic Job Search -- the basics
By Phil Hamilton on November 03, 2008

Although everyone is focused on tomorrow’s election, in the academic world we are in the midst of the academic job search season. As most of us know, finding a job in the academic world is a daunting prospect. Indeed, it is like being a candidate for an office where the members of a search committee are the only voters! I’d like to use this blog entry to discuss some issues on how to begin successfully navigating the often confusing world of the academic job search.

Doctoral programs have gotten better in recent years at preparing Ph.D. candidates for the market. But I think many readers of this blog who have experiences on both sides of the job search can share a great deal of valuable information with our younger colleagues.

Below are some of my initial thoughts and tips on determining where you should apply and how to put together a solid application. But I hope others will also share both their advice and their questions.

For a newly-minted Ph.D. entering the market (as well as for an assistant professor reentering the market for a better position), there are two initial questions that you should ask yourself:

1. “What kind of institution do I want to spend my career at?” Do you want a job at a research university? At a liberal arts college where teaching will be your primary responsibility? Could you consider teaching at a community college? Remember where you work and teach will determine the course of your academic career. Thus think carefully about this question before you start sending out applications. Of course, where you start your career may not be where you ultimately end up. But this question should guide your actions.

2. “Where do I want (or need) to live in order to be happy?” Do you want to be in a large metropolitan city? Or do you want to live in a town where the college is the dominant institution? If the thought of living in a small rural town where everyone knows you makes your skin crawl, don’t apply for such positions.

After determining where you want to apply, keep the following basic (but important) points in mind as you prepare your application package:

1. Be sure your expertise fits the position for which you’re applying. On every search committee I’ve served on, I’ve seen numerous applications from individuals whose skills clearly do not fit the job we advertised. I suspect many of these applicants think they’ll apply and “see what happens”. But because there are usually dozens of applications for each position, it really is a waste of their time and effort.

2. In your cover letter (or in a separate “teaching philosophy” statement) be sure to discuss your teaching experience. Most grad students have done little teaching when they finish the Ph.D. However, I work at a liberal arts institution and, therefore, I want to know if a job candidate has taught before or has at least thought about the art of teaching. Therefore, while the temptation is to discuss your dissertation and research at great length, you should also discuss the themes/goals/readings of the courses you will be expected to teach. You should also discuss your general attitudes about teaching in terms of how you’ll reach out to students.

3. Pay attention to style and clarity in your cover letter. Search committees naturally want candidates who can express themselves in a clear and straight-forward manner. If your cover letter’s prose is clunky, filled with awkward syntax, and laden with jargon, you’ll made a bad impression.

4. Proofread carefully and be sure your letters and other materials are free of typos. This sounds obvious, but many cover letters and CV’s I’ve read over the years have had typos. These mistakes make me wonder if the candidate is careless and sloppy in general.

5. Make sure your recommendation letters are up to date. Ask your references to update your letters each year you’re applying for positions. If a recommendation letter is several years old, a Search Committee will wonder why.

6. Include in your application packet only the information requested in the job advertisement. Including an off-print or photocopy of an article you’ve written is fine as a writing sample, but I’ve received entire manuscripts as part of a job application package! If you want to include some sample syllabi and/or past teaching evaluations, that’s fine. But don’t overwhelm the members of a search committee. Remember their time is finite and they are reviewing many applications. Don’t unnecessarily increase their workload with unasked-for materials.

In future blog postings, I’ll raise issues having to do with phone interviews, conference interviews as well as the all-important campus interview.

Educating for Democracy
By Gerson Moreno-Riano on November 04, 2008

Today millions of Americans will go to the polls to vote and thus continue one of the great democratic traditions. Democracy's claim to fame is the empowerment of the "demos." This empowerment is often seen as the chief democratic good. But upon closer inspection, it is evident that this empowerment must be substantive, it must empower the demos for good. This raises the important question of the role of higher education in preparing the demos for political participation.

The academy has not settled the question as to whether or not it is a duty for institutions of higher education to educate for democracy. To do this, some argue, is to bias one's students and to make education subjective tantamount to ideological training and brainwashing. Education is not about civics and making good citizens. It is about increasing the body of knowledge of a society and not about making good subjects.

Not everyone agrees with this perspective. A recent response to this problem can be found in the Educating for Democracy initiative of The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The initiative’s report, published in a book with the same title, suggests that one of the most important general themes for undergraduate teaching and education should be that of political engagement, “modeling the habits of mind and heart needed for effective democratic participation and leadership” (p. xi). What does this mean? Consider the following. Educating for democracy should:

  1. Help students understand the political process sufficiently to enable their participation therein;
  2. Teach students the skills and strategies needed to act effectively within the political system;
  3. Instruct students in a manner that will lead to their engagement with and commitment to the political process;
  4. Teach students to “profess democracy,” – to think like a citizen, act like a citizen, and internalize an identity of democratic participation and engagement.

As the report suggests, educating for democracy means that we are to “treat others – their rights as well as their ideas – as if they were inspired, whether creatively or divinely. And our responsibilities as citizens are to help create a society and political system in which that kind of possibility becomes real” (p. xii).

Such recommendations raise a large number of questions and tensions for higher education. Whether or not one agrees with these recommendations, the report does raise the important question of the role of education in preparing citizens. Given our current political climate and the increasing calls for more political participation and engagement on the part of both the young and the old, we, educators, must ask ourselves the question of what are the duties of a citizen? What does “political participation” and “active citizenship” mean for a citizen of any political community? One could phrase this question in a similar fashion to how Aristotle asked this question in his work Politics: Is the virtue of a good citizen the same as the virtue of a good human being?

For our own context, then, we should carefully consider whether or not the virtue of a good democratic citizen is the same as the virtue of a moral person. These questions should be central to what we do in our classrooms, discussions, and university life. We cannot relegate them to armchair philosophizing or academic venting. We must engage them directly and provide the kind of answers that will educate today's students for a life of leadership and service- both private and public. We must deliberately think about how to educate moral persons for democracy.

Millenials Talk Politics: Part I
By Gerson Moreno-Riano on November 13, 2008

A recent study by the Center for Information and Research on Civil Learning and Engagement focused upon the Millenial generation and the interaction between their education and their political and civic engagement. Given what some have argued regardnig the importance of the youth vote for Sen. Barack Obama's recent electoral victory, it is a good time for us to reflect on Millenials and their socio-political engagement.

For Part I of this blog entry, I would like to focus on the first finding of the report: Today's university students are more engaged than Generation X ever was. Millenials have garnered an impressive volunteering record. This volunteering spirit springs forth from a deep sense of obligation that it is important to work together with others on issues of social importance. Cynicism and radical individualism, though existent, are less influential for this generation than many seem to think.

For Millenials, politics is an important vehicle for change, one that is relevant to issues with which they are concerned. However, the dilemma for Millenials is that they are unsure as to how to engage with politics and often see politics as difficult and inefficient. Thus, Millenials engage politics and volunteer out of a general sense of moral obligation (i.e., it is right to do so) but seem to lack any coherent principles and philosophy of political engagement and volunteerism. As one student in the study put it: "You sit in a classroom and you read your dusty books with your dusty professors about dusty things, and then you don't learn anything about what you can do with it, and then you go into the community and all of a sudden you're like, wow, this is who I am and this is where my skills can go."

This raises an important issue for us faculty. What sort of philosophy of political engagement and volunteerism can we or should we provide for students in our classroom? What can we do from a pedagogical and curricular standpoint to develop the needed curricula and learning opportunities to develop an appropriate philosophy of political and civic engagement as well as to facilitate the right type of actions?

In other words, how can we connect principles to action? Should we not engage in this effort (is it brainwashing?)? Is it too much to expect from faculty to do this? Should we rely on other social institutions? If these fail, is it our responsibility?

Obamamania—“a historic youth mandate”?
By Joseph Fornieri on November 14, 2008

While much can be said about the historical significance of our most recent election in terms of breaking a racial barrier, I wish to explore a new trend of particular concern to me as an educator in today's academy—namely, the disproportionate number of youth (ages 18-29) who supported Obama. An article by David Paul Kuhn in Politico, Nov. 8, 2008 proclaims, "Obama has historic youth mandate." Indeed, exit polls showed that 66% of those under 30 cast their vote for Obama, while only 32% did so for McCain—a 34% margin. The voting disparity between candidates in each of the other age cohorts (30-44, 45-59, 60 and older) did not exceed 6%. Going back to 1972, the largest margin amongst the under 30 age group was 19 points in favor of Bill Clinton in 1996. Yet even this is not so wide as it seems since in that same year the independent candidate won 10% of the under 30 vote. Obama's margin among the youth dwarfed that of John F. Kennedy's by four times! Why the disparity? Will it constitute a new trend?

The figures seem to raise doubts about Patricia Cohen's contention that the prevailing liberal bias of college professors has a negligible influence upon students ("Professors' Liberalism Contagious? Maybe Not", New York Times, Nov. 3, 2008). To be sure, there are additional factors that may explain the overwhelming support for Obama amongst those under 30: his message of change and hope; his youth and physical attractiveness; McCain's seniority. What most concerns me, however, is the potentially insidious role that technology and the internet played in soliciting the under 30 vote for Obama. Please don't get me wrong: I am no Luddite. I fully acknowledge the many benefits that the internet offers to students and teachers alike (this website being one of them). At the same time, however, I am also aware of its limitations and its potential dangers as an effective propaganda tool of manipulation in a mass democracy.

After the election, I was stunned to learn how many students, including those that voted for Obama, frankly admitted that many of their fellow student voters knew little to nothing about the candidates' views on the actual issues. Many explained that it was quite "fashionable" to vote in this election and to do so for Obama. No doubt, some of this was probably stated to impress their instructor with how much they knew in comparison to others. Nonetheless, I believe that there is validity to their naïve observations that many of their fellow student voters were woefully uninformed. (I wonder what a scientific poll would reveal about how informed they actually were). Students also observed that they voted for Obama because he seemed "to care about them." The proof of this care: sending them e-mails, using facebook, announcing Biden's vice-presidential candidacy via text message. Some students revealed that they had received a daily e-mail message from Obama for almost two years! Even though they could not quite explain the meaning of a capital gains tax, they felt empowered by this involvement. For some it provided a sense of belonging, filling a social and emotional void for something beyond the mundane.

I conclude with the following questions for blog readers: do you think that the pervasive use of technology by the Obama campaign has led to more informed, politically savvy students? If so, how may conservatives combat this tendency and address the disparity? Do you see any dangers or problems with how technology was used to gain the under 30 vote? Should Obama's example be followed by conservatives in this regard?

Paper/panel proposals for AHA and OAH in 2010
By Phil Hamilton on November 15, 2008

One of the missions of the Lehrman American Studies Center is to help junior professors and graduate students who care about America’s founding principles succeed in their academic careers. The Center also wishes to encourage personal and professional relationships, especially among participants of the Lehrman Summer Institutes at Princeton.

At the Institute last summer, I spoke about how to successfully navigate the professional association meeting. In particular, I discussed how important it is for young scholars to present their research at their discipline’s annual conferences. For history, the two largest and most important professional meetings are the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians.

Therefore, I’d like to put the call out to historians who have attended the Institute in years past to consider putting a panel together either with me (see below) and/or with one or more of the other historians you met at Princeton. And I hope some of you will use the blog as a vehicle with which to discuss paper topics, to exchange ideas, and to help all of us write more effective panel proposals.

In January 2010, the AHA conference will be in San Diego, CA. The deadline for submission to present at this meeting is February 15, 2009. More information on how to submit a proposal to AHA can be found at:

OAH’s conference will be in Washington, D.C. in April 2010. The deadline for submission to this meeting is also February 15, 2009. Information on OAH’s meeting is at:

Both conferences will only consider full panel proposals (which include three papers, a chair, and a commentator).

If anyone is interested in working with me, there are three research projects I’m currently working on (all of which are at various stages of completion). But I’ll be happy to work with some of you if we can effectively link our general topics. They are:

  1. The expansion of higher education in Virginia during the Civil Rights Movement (I’m exploring this topic as part of a book manuscript I’m currently writing about Christopher Newport University where I teach.)
  2. Ex-President John Tyler and his family in “retirement” (1845-1862). This paper will explore the role the broader John Tyler clan played in keeping the ex-president’s political fortunes alive after he left the White House. It is part of a larger project on how/why important political families emerged in the early American republic.
  3. Henry/Lucy Knox and the American Revolution. I’ve just started exploring this subject and am planning to write a biography about the Knoxes’ experiences and marriage. To date, I have looked mainly at how the Revolutionary War itself influenced and reshaped their relationship.
Book review: Racing Odysseus: A College President Becomes a Student Again
By John von Heyking on November 19, 2008

Roger H. Martin, Racing Odysseus: A College President Becomes a Student Again, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).

Roger H. Martin is past president of Randolf-Macon College in Virginia. For many long years of administrative work, as well as for a bout of melanoma that nearly killed him, Martin rewarded himself by taking an unusual, and rather courageous, semester-long, sabbatical in which he enrolled as a freshman at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland.

The book is a personal memoir of a past president’s attempt to understand the needs and longings of undergraduate students; a personal reflection upon the nature of lost youth; and a reflection upon the nature of a liberal arts education in a technologically driven society. The book is written for general readers as well as for university and college administrators and teachers who can gain a quasi-insider’s look at the souls of today’s students by reading the author’s reportage, and the manner in which the cultivation of their intellects can be conducted in today’s world. While the reflective aspect of the book is frequently overshadowed by the author’s melodramatic ruminations of his lost youth (that he seeks to recover by joining the rowing team), the book raises the central question facing those of us involved in providing students a liberal education. The book asks whether a liberal arts education, in forming the intellectual and moral parts of the souls of young people, is possible without short-changing the need to educate students to participate in a modern technologically-driven society. It asks the Aristotelian question of whether a liberal arts education, which aims at forming a good human being, can simultaneously educate students to become good citizens (with all the skills necessary for a particular political regime, namely the liberal democratic one that is so closely allied with the goal of technology).

For Martin, St. John’s College is the best laboratory in which to ask this perennial question because its curriculum best reflects the goal of a liberal arts education of forming the souls of its students (both intellectual and moral virtues) and of constituting a genuine community. Unlike perhaps evangelical liberal arts colleges that have students sign codes of behavior which promote various forms of moderation, the two moral virtues St. John’s College appears to promote is courage and playfulness (or what Aristotle called eutrapelia). It promotes courage by encouraging its students to take intellectual risks, but also to risk their reputation and physical well-being by participating in extracurricular sports and activities at which they are not very good. “Johnnies” are encouraged to take waltz lessons, sing in the choir, join the rowing team, or some other activity that takes them out of their comfort zone. Doing so of course promotes the liberal intellectual activity that the college is deservedly known for. Courage is related to eutrapelia because the playfulness of liberal play learned in choir or rowing assists them to participate in the central classroom institution of the college, the seminar. The eutrapelia of the Johnnies is well captured by the image of the bohemian student who is also a decent oarsman.

Johnnies begin freshmen seminar by reading Homer’s Iliad. By the time Johnnies are about to graduate, it is hoped they have reached somewhere in the twentieth-century, perhaps with Heidegger. Martin reports reading Plato’s Republic is the initiation into the college for students. One only becomes a Johnnie after reading the Republic. Indeed, the St. John’s College curriculum is based in large part on the model of the Republic, which assumes, against the assumptions of modern higher education and the model of the Enlightenment encyclopaedists, that knowledge is unitary and its pursuit is a joint venture among students guided by a teacher who claims no specialized knowledge of her own.

The model is daring for being counter-cultural in our age. Higher education demands specialized knowledge, especially in the physical sciences. In this field, Johnnies’ curriculum includes Euclid, Harvey, Newton, and Einstein so they can understand the “great” scientific experiments of human history as well as to learn the process or mode of scientific inquiry as practiced by the “greats.” Critics of this approach argue graduates lack sufficient scientific training to excel in graduate school, which requires students who have gained access to the specialized latest knowledge of the field. Martin notes in defense of the curriculum that whatever gap in Johnnies’ scientific knowledge is more than compensated by their ability to think in all different modes of human endeavor, and that most pursuing graduate work in the physical sciences or medicine generally take a qualifying year before formal entry into a graduate program.

Martin’s most far-reaching claim is that teacher-student bond is “the highest, the most noble, the most perfect form of love there can be” (255). He bases this claim largely on the seminar, where he frequently comments how the topics covered in its readings overlap with the personal sufferings and concerns of the students he gets to know, as well as in the figure of the rowing coach who, for Martin, personifies the Greek educational ideal of synthesizing physical with intellectual and moral excellence. Unlike most other institutions of higher education in the United States, there is no jock culture at St. John’s because the needs of the soul surpass those of the body. There are no “misologists,” to use Plato’s term for those whose gymnastic education has made them too machismo and thereby lacking of the passivity to have their souls formed by the logos. Even so, over half the book consists of a description of the author’s personal quest to make the rowing team and to practice for its big competition. One wishes his reflections upon the readings in the seminar were as extensive as his reflections upon rowing.

In order to make good his claim that teachers and students share the highest form of love, one wishes Martin would have made more present two aspects of St. John’s College: the tutor and the freshman choir. Martin briefly describes encounters with the tutors, including those leading the freshman seminar in which he is enrolled. However, he pays very little attention to their love for their students. He speculates how students from difficult family backgrounds might respond to the supremely dysfunctional family of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, but he recounts no experiences of periagoge, no turning around of the soul among students who have been pulled, Socrates seems to suggest, kicking and screaming out of the cave. This absence of periagoge might be the result of what he observes. He gains only partial trust of some freshman so he cannot do more than speculate on the states of their souls.

Moreover, tutors must only insert themselves into seminar discussion obliquely, guiding discussion with the occasional question initially to focus on major themes of the reading, and then to get discussion back on track. Tutors are largely absent from Martin’s report because, as the advertising of the college states, the books are the real teachers at St. John’s. Tutors are simply better-read students. One wishes Martin would have reflected upon the apparent absence of tutors in this love relationship. What does it mean for teachers and students both to be students? In what sense are tutors still teachers? In what sense do they love their students? Can the books be said to love the students?

In the final pages of the book, Martin laments he missed out on freshman choral. He thought it was just another club, like waltz or chess, at which one could try one’s hand. However, he discovers in fact that all freshmen are required to participate, and he describes in moving detail the beauty of all the freshmen singing Palestrina at the college’s Winter Collegium that marks the end of the fall semester. Like the citizens of the best practical regime in Plato’s Laws, the community expresses its unity and its virtue in sacred singing. Courage, eutrapelia, and knowledge point to piety. Conversely, if the guardians of the Republic get an education in gymnastic and music to learn courage and moderation respectively, then one wishes Martin would re-enroll in St. John’s College so he could focus his energies on music instead of on gymnastic as he does in this book.

Racing Odysseus is most insightful when it interweaves grand questions with the author’s observations of the students. Teachers and administrators especially need to read this book to they may see how the virtues particular to the college and its curriculum are lived out. Liberal education as an endeavor to moral and intellectual virtue, done in community and friendship, has receded from the modern mind and its imperative for the scientific conquest of nature. Given the well-documented pathologies of higher education (most recently by Anthony Kronman in Education’s End), St. John’s College stands out as a lonely and much-needed alternative.

However, readers need to look elsewhere to find more extended reflections upon the nature of what he studies. In the spirit of his subject matter, this reviewer suggests the curriculum of St. John’s College is a good place to start on this longer journey.

Is the Research University Based on an Intellectual Swindle? Part I
By John von Heyking on November 24, 2008

In his introductory lecture at the University of Munich in 1958, which was later published as Science, Politics, and Gnosticism, Eric Voegelin dropped a bombshell by demonstrating how Karl Marx (as well as Hegel and Nietzsche) were intellectual swindlers. Their swindle was the result of them having built in a prohibition of questioning into their intellectual systems (or lack of system, in the case of Nietzsche). For someone like Marx, socialist man simply must not ask a question like, what is the meaning of life? Or what is the origin of one’s existence?

Voegelin was the first to teach political science at the University of Munich since Max Weber. It is Weber’s “Science as a Vocation” lecture that structures Anthony Kronman’s argument in Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life (Yale University Press, 2007) that the research ideal of the modern university does not simply ignore but positively prohibits the same question that Marx prohibits.

Voegelin caused scandal with his blunt assessment of Marx. That Kronman’s less blunt but no less incisive criticism has not caused a similar scandal seems to illustrate how deeply the swindle has seeped into the contemporary academy.

Kronman, following Weber (who follows Tolstoy on this question), argues the research ideal of the contemporary university is that of specialization. Researchers mark their tiny corner of the universe in order to make their tiny contribution to the growing stock of scientific knowledge. The modern researcher makes a virtue out of specialization because knowledge of the whole, alleged to be the goal of liberal education, is not only impossible but is taken by the research ideal to be a vice. Because the aggregate of knowledge is seen to grow and progress constantly, the individual researcher can anticipate being obsolete very soon after his contribution, or, at most, his life: “The true scholar wants to be superseded by his successors, just as he wants to supersede those who have preceded him. He seeks originality, but accepts the transience of his own original achievements” (118).

To be a scholar then is to exert “heroic” effort onto the tip of a blade of grass, and then to throw that blade of grass into the wind, forever to be forgotten. To illustrate the “heroic” “ethic of supersession” (Weber) that is demanded of scholars, Kronman quotes the remark of nineteenth-century German chemist Just von Liebig to a friend: “If you wish to become a chemist, you must be prepared to sacrifice your health. Whoever does not ruin his health by studying will not amount to much in chemistry these days” (281, n. 23). Any scholar will likely see a bit of his graduate school experience in this statement. Whether the research ideal is a “heroic” ideal or human folly (most famously illustrated by Aristophanes’ satirical portrayal of Socrates’ disciples as pale-skinned and starving) remains open to question.

Even so, the researcher is necessarily isolated and the “scientific community” or “republic of letters” is a chimera: “It is the scholar’s own insistence on the importance of originality that compels him to acknowledge the transience of his work, that deprives him of the experience of eternity in the deathless company of his ancestors, and leaves him facing death alone and unconsoled. If specialization is a price that must be paid for originality, then loneliness is too” (120). The quest for originality – which finds its counterpart in politics in individualism - undermines the ability of community, both in terms of the making “scientific community” meaningless as well as the university, which might be better described, as philosopher George Grant did, as a multiversity. Communication is, by definition, impossible among absolutely unique individuals who, in their ultimate particularity, cannot share a common world or academic endeavor. For this reason, one might have to look to university administrators to form the moral and intellectual glue that holds the university together (one thinks of research services staff who have a better understanding of the variety of research that gets done at a university, and frequently can identify areas where researchers of disparate disciplines can coordinate their efforts).

According to the research ideal, questioning the meaning of life, the goal of liberal education, is unprofessional. Such questions are about values instead of facts, as it has been explained in the past. However, Kronman’s argument shows how even raising the question becomes impossible for the researcher. As far back as Aristotle, the question of meaning of life requires a human “life” to be an intelligible unit of analysis. But the researcher’s “life” is not an intelligible unit:

The scholar devoted to the advancement of knowledge in his field is encouraged by the research ideal to consider his own death a nonevent, one that lacks significance so far as the work of the discipline itself is concerned. For the researcher who sees the importance of his work in this way, what really matters is the progress of understanding in his field, to which he makes an individual contribution but whose ‘life,’ unlike his own, has no boundaries at all. From the perspective of the multigenerational enterprise in which he is engaged, the researcher’s own mortality has little or no meaning. Within the realm of academic study, the research ideal devalues death. It deprives death of significance for the scholar who embraces this ideal, and makes any preoccupation on his part with the fact of his mortality seem unprofessional and self-absorbed (128-129).

Weber states the problem this way: “For civilized man death has no meaning. It has none because the individual life of civilized man, placed into an infinite ‘progress,’ according to its own imminent meaning should come to an end; for there is always a further step ahead of one who stands in the march of progress.” The researcher has a meaningful existence only as a contributor to a project of universal humanity, but he lacks any individual significance beyond his minute contribution to the universal. His death, and thus his individuality, is meaningless.

"Is the Research University Based on an Intellectual Swindle? Part II" is available here.
Millenials Talk Politics: Part II
By Gerson Moreno-Riano on November 25, 2008

As has often been heard, Millenials appear to be more involved and engaged in local issues than any generation in recent history. Large groups of young college students volunteer in education, youth issues, healthcare, and social justice initiatives. Why is this the case and in what way, if any, is it related to politics and civics?

It appears as if most students are involved because of a healthy dose of social responsibility. They want to make things better, to "keep this country a good place." One of the most stated reasons is that college students want to "help others" and because they believe that volunteering simply leads to "good" and to needed "change." According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), such service and change orientations are related to young peoples family dynamics as well as to high school and college experiences- particularly to required community service (e.g., service learning) and required civics and government courses.

While such educational experiences appear to be related to civic engagement, many of today's young people consider voting to be one of the least beneficial vehicles for addressing public issues and influencing change. Many are completely dissatisfied with politics in general and consider it negative, a "bad deal," and lacking any vision and high ideals.

It is interesting to note that the CIRCLE study referenced in Part I of this blog (see below) suggests that the majority of Millenials consider volunteering a complement to politics with a small group of Millenials holding that volunteering is itself a form of politics and perhaps even an alternative to politics. Some of these same students argue that volunteering is perhaps a better preparation for government and public service than the traditional criteria of experience and education.

All of these findings suggest that there is a disconnect between politics and today's young college students. And that while education may contribute to their desire for social and volunteering engagement, it has not translated to more political and civic engagement. What is the reason for this?

Service learning courses are often meant to train social justice activists or to make students more sensitive to their own "privileged" positions. Thus, one could expect that one of the outcomes of such courses and experiences are either more sensitive or guilty students marching out to make the world a better place and to atone for their positions of privilege. But how and why are government and civic courses related to more volunteering but seem to have little impact on political engagement and general opinions about politics?

Here, I confess that I personally need to think more deeply on how my own courses need to help students consider thoughtful political engagement as a part of their educational experience. It is not that we should be training political activists. Rather, we should be educating thoughtful citizens that consider politics essential to their wellbeing and not antagonistic to it. Perhaps this is one of the problems- our own inability to demonstrate why politics is itself a moral good needed for the realization of various human goods. Is this a legitimate assessment and conclusion? Are there others we should consider?

It would also be interesting to think of how we could use service learning opportunities to buttress our own courses, curricula, and government/civics education. Is anyone doing this at the moment or have plans to implement such an experience?

Prev 1 Next