Date of this Version
Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Fall/Winter 2017), pp 17-23.
The current political moment in the United States puts an exclamation point on years of growing concern for our civic culture. We have a president who neither understands nor cares for the processes and norms of the American system of government, a Congress that seems almost indifferent to the real issues of governing for the public good, a news cycle driven by flippant tweets, and a toxic social media environment. There is little current recognition that, in our system, how we debate the alternatives and arrive at policies is as important for our long-term civic enterprise as the resulting policies themselves. As far apart as we are about the desired ends, we are at risk of coming together in ignoring the importance of the proper means. For many of our students, this is the first presidential election, administration, and Congress in their awareness and will set their expectations about process and norms for public life. Our students have precious few examples of a healthy public environment and few models for how to partake in one, not simply in what they should accomplish but in how they should go about trying. In this context, honors programs and colleges have distinct opportunities to help our students navigate and enhance our public space, thereby providing a vital service for them and for our communities. One challenge for students is a lack of familiarity with the institutions and conventions of public life. We hear in the news about student failures to appreciate the processes and the virtues on which our system of self-government is built, such as students purportedly favoring repeal of the First Amendment. But media attention favors the flamboyant at the expense of the mundane, and careful studies of college-age attitudes about such matters are mixed. Subtler observations closer to home are what have me thinking about how students view and respond to current issues and public engagement. One fairly typical example occurs when I assign competing op-eds on an issue of current controversy. Under certain circumstances, students consistently interpret the opinion of an author exactly wrong. That is, they believe she opposes the very position that the op-ed is written to support. What are the circumstances? Within the op-ed, the author critiques an argument or person associated with her own position on the issue. Students reason that if the author supported this position, surely she would not criticize arguments in favor of it. To cite just one recent example, my students were convinced that Ross Douthat, a traditionalist Catholic columnist for the New York Times, favored same-sex marriage because he opened a column by dismissing three weak but often-used arguments defending traditional marriage. That the rest of his column argued the opposite eluded them. Whether a conservative author admitting some arguments for traditional views of marriage are weak, a liberal criticizing abuses of the social safety net, or one of countless other examples, students struggle to comprehend political self-critique.