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Apathy in politics, government: A crisis point in civic education?

Those who remember the 1960s and 1970s as an era when college campuses were centers political activism can somewhat relate to Marty Wiseman’s “concern that deepens with each passing year” over the trend of apathy in today’s students with regard to government and politics.

In a recent column, the just-retired director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government and Community Development at Mississippi State University reminisced on the change he has noted in his students over the course of almost three decades of teaching government.

“Time was that a topic casually introduced to a roomful of 120 mostly freshmen…would invariably shut down the class — the instructor need only close his/her notebook and referee such typically incendiary topics as…the war of the moment, gun control, or virtually any environmental issue.”

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There were three strong observations about those students, Wiseman says: “Many held strong opinions about these issues; they had given thought to, and indeed articulated, their feelings about these issues in prior discussions; and they were able to verbalize in detail what the role of government should or should not be with regard to solutions to issues about which they were so passionate.”

In the past, he notes, “Knowledge of our unique form of government and our civic responsibility was basic to any education, beginning as early as kindergarten” — a knowledge that “has fairly dramatically declined in importance in recent years.”

Reasons behind this “crisis point in civic education,” Wiseman says, include an increased emphasis on science and math, mechanically gradable multiple choice tests that negatively affect students’ abilities to verbalize the importance of civic knowledge and involvement, and “a new and developing phenomenon — a pronounced disdain for government in general.”

Once, he says, “Students would arrive on campus, clamoring for the chance to be involved with government, to work in political campaigns, and to intern in Washington for starvation wages.”

But, he writes, today’s students “have a decidedly negative view of government in general,” and “it is evident many of these negative opinions were formed around the dinner table at home.”

Finally, Wiseman says, “The display of animosity between the two entrenched political parties is obviously taking its toll…Students and budding young political enthusiasts are becoming less familiar with a calling to make government work, and are instead being fed a steady diet of the evils of compromise and of an overly-stated failure of government to accomplish anything of value.”

Several studies have indicated, he says, that all this “will lead to a drop in participation, and a dramatic decline, in the faith that all of us invest in our ‘one of a kind’ democracy.”

More’s the pity…