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Civic education is poor in American schools, and it is playing a major role in the general populace’s ability to effectively participate in civil political discourse. In order to create generations of voters who are able to debate current events and issues in a productive manner, schools need to spend time actively teaching students how to engage in discussions with people whose opinions differ from their own.
If you are seeking out examples of the deterioration of political discourse, look no further than the current presidential campaign. Candidates stoop to unbelievable levels of immaturity while carelessly throwing around personal attacks. Donald Trump actually referred to Marco Rubio as “Little Marco” during a GOP debate, on top of so many other examples of incivility that I will not try to list them here. These juvenile actions turn the debates into meaningless brawls.
Not only are these squabbles embarrassing, but they also distract from the issues at hand and waste time that candidates should use to explain their views and plans. This ridiculous fighting, never mind the fact that the policies at stake are rarely discussed, draws in a demographic of inadequately educated voters.
People fight with others who have different opinions, refusing to meet on common ground in order to discuss the issue politely, but rather shutting down their arguments and disregarding any opinions differing from their own. Because civil debate is not taught in school, this cycle of idiocy continues.
The biggest obstacle for civic education is the uphill battle of maintaining political correctness. Students and teachers sometimes hesitate to have substantive political discussions for fear of offending students, parents or other faculty. Politically correct practices exist for a good reason. Minority groups need protection against disrespectful and hateful language and actions.
Concerns about political correctness should not end political discussions if implemented in a reasonable manner. Students must learn how to discuss controversial issues like immigration, abortion, minimum wage and police violence without the conversation devolving into a screaming match that drowns out the alternate opinion. If someone ends a political debate by saying “we can’t talk about this any more, that offends me,” they aren’t participating in mature discourse, or even doing a good job advocating their position. They merely push the conversation underground. Civic education would teach students would cure students of this habit.
Bringing politics into the classroom has its pitfalls. If a highly vocal teacher creates a syllabus with a political agenda in mind, they will use the time devoted to teaching political discourse force their views upon their pupils. This is especially dangerous for younger students with malleable political opinions.
It would be problematic in high schools as well, because when the opinions of students clashed with those of their teachers, they would waste valuable class time arguing over touchy political issues. Equally important but less inflammatory subjects would be left out. However, the majority of educators in this country are not in the classroom to spread political ideologies, but because they want to teach, period. The benefits of straightforward civic education in American classrooms far outweigh the potential complications that might come with such a curriculum.
For what percentage of your child’s education is the American education system responsible? If they come home knowing multiplication tables, under what conditions ‘i’ comes before ‘e’ and with a vague understanding of the Electoral College, the whole organization is considered a success.
Until every eligible voter in America graduates with the ability to participate in civil political discourse, the education system retains a gaping hole that will negatively impact our country for years.
Claire Mikulski ’19 (firstname.lastname@example.org) is from Western Springs, Ill. She majors in English.
It is the middle of a cold, snowy February. The sun rises at 7:00 a.m. and sets before dinner. Classes are swinging into full gear, and the guiltless naps and Netflix marathons of Interim seem a distant memory as you make the freezing hike from Buntrock to Old Main for your third class of the day. You are ready for anything this semester can throw at you, but you are already worn down. How does everyone in your 8:00 a.m. look so put together when you can barely stick a toothbrush in your mouth before you crawl to class? How does that girl who makes time for an hour at Skoglund every day get around to homework, organizations and socializing? How can the sun shine so brightly when the wind chill is ten below? Why am I the only one struggling?
Even though many of us are, on a certain level, happy to be at St. Olaf, the winter can get long and moods can dip very, very low. Whether a student is suffering from clinical depression, seasonal affective disorder or is simply feeling run down and burnt out, it’s difficult to come to terms with these negative feelings. Yes, we like to think of Oles as happy people, but this image alienates us when we feel anything else. You’re surrounded by people who seem to have no issues at all and are having the time of their lives, and you feel isolated and confused.
I heard a professor describe it as “cruel optimism.” It’s good that so many people here are really, truly happy, but those who are unhappy feel alienated.
St. Olaf offers many services to promote mental health on campus. The Boe House Counseling Center provides students with individual counseling, group counseling, workshops, consultations and referrals at no extra cost to any currently enrolled student. The Wellness Center is open Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and students can talk to Peer Educators and attend programs on many topics, including mental health and nutrition.
These are great comprehensive resources for students struggling with their mental health. However, I think St. Olaf needs a level of mental healthcare between suffering in silence and going to Boe House for counseling, and that care should come from other students.
Looking out for others’ mental health is not a groundbreaking idea, but it’s always good to remind people that you need to look out for your friends and classmates, especially at this time of year.
It is cold and grey outside, and the relentless freezing temperatures can get people down, especially your friends who come from warmer states. Not only is it freezing cold, but it’s also a really busy time, academically. Sure, it’s not finals, but the early weeks of a new semester can be hectic as people try to rediscover their routine and get used to new classes. It’s a daily grind. It’s cold and dark outside, and it’s easy to lose sight of the good and to only focus on the bad.
As a campus, we need to step up and look out for one another when times are tough. It can be as easy as texting a friend who you haven’t seen around in a while to make sure they’re doing alright or getting coffee with somebody you know is having a tough time. It can be as simple as listening and as beautiful as being the person that makes a real difference in someone’s day, week or even year.