Vote or fail

Shocked to learn that only 37 percent of students vote, an English professor required her students to vote. Merrill Maguire Skaggs, who teaches at Drew University in New Jersey, explained her decision in Columbia’s Teachers’ College Record.

First, she suggested that other professors join her. Many said “the idea sounded totalitarian, that it was probably illegal, that it denied students their civil right not to vote, that students would be served better by substantive class discussions of the issues.” But others said Australia requires everyone to vote and is not considered totalitarian. A lawyer advised that she could require students to enter a voting booth, but couldn’t know if they voted for a candidate or for Donald Duck. Dreaming of student voters swaying elections, she went ahead with her plan.

Via Education Watch, George Leef of the John Locke Foundation disapproves.

The job of an English professor is to teach English. That’s it. Adding non-academic requirements to a course is objectionable, no matter how important the professor may believe them to be. Suppose that another English professor who feels passionately that students need to get in better physical shape (for their own benefit, and also to reduce the strain that overweight, sickly people put on our semi-socialist health-care system) mandates that in order to pass the course, all students must be able to run a mile in less than eight minutes.

Two of my daughter’s college friends didn’t vote. One had moved and forgot to register or request an absentee ballot. The other just didn’t bother. Both are political science majors.

Nationwide, more voters under 30 went to the polls, though their share of the total electorate barely budged because of the high turn-out in other age groups.

According to professor William Galston at the University of Maryland, at least 20.9 million Americans under 30 voted on Tuesday. That is an increase of 4.6 million voters from 2000. Four years ago, just 42.3 percent of young people voted. This year more than 51.6 percent did.

Exit polls suggest Kerry won 54 percent of the youth vote but lost in every other age group.

About Joanne

Comments

  1. Of the two, not voting and being forced to vote, I’d have to say the second is more un-American. This is another stinky example of our nation’s grand oxymoronic tradition of forced volunteerism.

  2. Hey, hey. Let’s not blame the whole country for this. It’s just one, misguided English professor if I’m not being redundent.

  3. Robert Schwartz says:

    Exit Polls sugetted that Kerry Won.

  4. Playing the curmudgeon here…the last thing we need is to force the unmotivated to vote…since the unmotivated will largely also be uninformed.

    This is also why I’m not enthusiastic about “Get out the Vote” drives. I would far rather see fewer uninformed voters, in the hope of raising the general level of elected officials.

  5. First off, not voting was a civil right I almost used in this presidential race.

    Second, I’d really like to know what other politics she was injecting into her English classes, because I find it REALLY hard to believe that she could force her students to go to the polls and not be voicing her partisan views in the class.

    Third, I agree wholeheartedly with Bill. My motto on get out the vote is “If you don’t know what you’re going to vote for and why, you shouldn’t be voting.” Get out the vote drives aim for quantity, not quality. Big mistake.

  6. Oh, and one small comment on Austrailia. I think it is totalitarian unless they have a box that says “No candidate chosen” for each race, so that the right not to vote for someone you don’t care to vote for is intact. (I also think that “No Candidate Chosen” would be good to have on American ballots.)

  7. ” The job of an English professor is to teach English. That’s it.”

    Ok, I’ll take Leef’s bait. I’m an English professor–and I’ve been teaching English for 43 years, so I know more about the field than Mr. Leef.

    While I did not require my students to vote, I did give bonus points to every student who showed me that they were registered to vote. Those who could not register (too young or not citizens) were given the option of writing a letter to a newspaper or magazine.

    I teach college composition courses. The purpose of such courses in the curriculum is to develop academic, professional and civic literacy, so that a graduate can participate in the various forms of written discourse demanded in this society. Registering and voting is a key part of civic literacy. You learn to vote by doing it, by discovering what you need to know to cast a vote with some degree of comfort and confidence.

    There’s a lot of evidence that young people don’t vote because they haven’t been enculturated into the practice. Lowering voting age to 17 so high school seniors could be included would allow that to be part of their last year of high schooling. It certainly far more appropriate for public schools to be teaching civic literacy than churches.

  8. John L wrote:

    There’s a lot of evidence that young people don’t vote because they haven’t been enculturated into the practice.

    I’d be interested to see the evidence for that assertion. I would have put youthful self-absorption and laziness right up there with a lack of enculturation as reasons for the lack of interest in voting by younger citizens.

    The purpose of such courses in the curriculum is to develop academic, professional and civic literacy, so that a graduate can participate in the various forms of written discourse demanded in this society.

    You certainly are covering a lot of ground in a composition course. I would have thought that teaching a college composition course – teaching people to write clearly and concisely – would be a worthwhile pursuit and sufficiently difficult to absorb an entire semester. Would it be safe to infer then that learning academic, professional and civic literacy are sufficiently undemanding that they can be shoehorned into a college-level composition course?

    I think Merrill Maguire Skaggs and yourself, John L, are phenomenally presumptuous. No one’s asked either of you to teach the importance of voting, neither of you teach’s classes in which the value of voting is pertinent, yet both of you see fit to insert your personal beliefs into a class in which they have no place.

    I can only presume that you do so because the notion of being held accountable for wasting the time and money of your students is simply laughable.

  9. when I was a college student, I did look forward to voting and voted in all the elections.

    But I would have been really skeeved if one of my profs “required” me to vote, or even offered extra credit for it. Somehow, that just doesn’t seem right….Aha…. I just realized what REALLY bothers me – the teacher is giving the students class credit for doing something that should be viewed as a civic duty. Something they really should do anyway. Not unlike parents giving their young’uns cash for good grades, or profs who give credit to students for showing up to class….

  10. “It certainly far more appropriate for public schools to be teaching civic literacy than churches.”

    I think it’s rather dangerous having public institutions teaching civic literacy, since the incentive to teach it in a way which ensures their continuing existence is so high. I’d rather see institutions which are skeptical of government teaching civic literacy so that the people can continue to act as a check on government power.

  11. No one’s asked either of you to teach the importance of voting, neither of you teach’s classes in which the value of voting is pertinent, yet both of you see fit to insert your personal beliefs into a class in which they have no place.

    I love your presumption, Allen. By what expertise do you know what the college curriculum is at my college? In fact, our college president declared civic engagement to be a year-long concern in all classes this year. He got the New York Times to leave 1000 copies of the paper on campus every morning and they’ve all been gone by evening. Faculty across the curriculum have been engaging students in issues of public discourse. We’ve had at least 5 speakers at open forums addressing a variety of public policy issues, including Farai Chideya who just published a book addressing the reasons 100 million Americans don’t vote.

    Jefferson knew that effective democracy depended on education for civic literacy–that’s always been a goal of public schooling. One doesn’t write “clearly and concisely” for its own sake. Writers always have a purpose and audience–those are the most critical rhetorical elements of a college composition course, even if you don’t know that.

    For the next month, my students will be reading the 9/11 Commission Report. They’ll have to select one claim from the report, do extensive searches that will test that claim and write a paper explaining their argument and documenting their sources. Because I’m really good at what I do, I know how to integrate rhetorical and stylistic goals. Because my students learn a lot (and I don’t push my personal politics on anybody, ever), I have strong ratings on places like rateyourprofessor.com.

    And because I believe in transparency and accountability, I post my courses publicly on my web page: http://faculty.deanza.fhda.edu/lovasjohn

    So what’s your claim to expertise in teaching college composition, Allen?

  12. Adrian–

    You adopt the neo-conservative claim that schools are government, that public universities are part of “government” and thus not independent.

    Just because schools are tax-supported does not make them government. We’ve worked pretty hard at separating the two. And if you haven’t noticed, university professors have regularly criticized government in its various forms.

    I am paid by the public, not the governor or the mayor–certainly not by the president. And my job is to teach ways of analyzing and commenting on various forms of public discourse, not advocating for candidates.

    I suppose you prefer the conservative think tanks (such as the one that published the article that triggered this thread) bankrolled by rich conservatives for your “independent” criticism.

  13. So what’s your claim to expertise in teaching college composition…

    Just because schools are tax-supported does not make them government.

    So what’s you claim to expertise in teaching law, John? The idea that public schools are somehow NOT government agencies is absurd to the point of failing to pass the laugh test, and by suggesting otherwise you manage to undercut whatever credibility you might have with respect to the rest of your argument. If public schools are, in your view, “not government,” then are they subject to the First Amendment? And if so, why?

    …if you haven’t noticed, university professors have regularly criticized government in its various forms.

    I worked for a state legislature for three years. Does the fact that my elected bosses constantly criticized the other two branches, and each other, make them “not government”? Government agencies have their own full-time internal lobbyists (I’m practically certain your university has them), paid at taxpayer expense to push their agenda through the legislative process, and this routinely involves criticism of other public officials and employees. If not criticizing government is your criterion for determining who is part of government, it would seem to me that that definition would capture precisely no one.

    “I am paid by the public, not the governor or the mayor–certainly not by the president.”

    Since the executive does not have the power of the purse, no one is paid by the governor, the mayor or the president. That’s a non sequitur.

  14. John L-

    How many public university profs, or profs in general, have you heard critice FDR or LBJ for enlarging the federal government too much? That many, huh?

    Yes, college professors criticize government, quite often in fact, but very rarely do they criticize certain aspects, like excessive size or pervasiveness. In fact, in my entire time in public education, I’ve NEVER heard a teacher/professor call for less government, though I’ve heard many call for more.

    The above behavior does not constitue advocating for candidates, but it does mean advocating a specific viewpoint, namely that government is good. So I ask, is it possible for a government-run institution to impart the necessary skepticism of governments, from local to federal, and even international, which allows citizens to remain as a check and balance on their power?

    My libertarian answer is that it is impossible, since the existence of the schools depends on local and state governments.

    I would love to hear what you have to say on this.

    ~Adrian~

    P.S. I resent being called a neo-con since they seek to use governmental power to shape society just as much as those on the left do. A good example of this is the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Were I a neo-con I would support this, however I believe that it is an infringement upon both the freedom of association and the right to form contractual agreements without undue interference.)

  15. John L wrote:

    I love your presumption, Allen.

    Sorry I can’t say the same about your smugness, condescension and disingenousness. I find those qualities to be repulusive and reprehensible.

    By what expertise do you know what the college curriculum is at my college?

    The same “expertise” that empowers me to send a steak back when it isn’t cooked to my order: I ordered it, I’m paying for it so it had better be the way I want it.

    If the course catalog says “composition” then composition it had better be. Not civic literacy, whatever the hell that is.

    In fact, it had better not be any kind of “literacy”. I can already read so a literacy class is redundent.

    But disingenuous fellow that you are, it isn’t literacy instruction that you’re wasting your students time with, it’s academic, professional and civics literacy. Those are much more important, complex and grave subjects then mere literacy.

    The myriad types of literacy also provide the transparent cover for the important job of finding students anxious enough to believe in their own superiority that they are willing to commit the error of confusing cause and effect: if smart people are arrogant then acting arrogant means I’m smart. How are you going to go about the vital task of propogating the liberal meme if you can’t identify kids vulnerable to it’s most insidious attraction?

    Jefferson knew that effective democracy depended on education for civic literacy…

    You’re pretty big on name-dropping but a trifle less generous with cites. Care to point to the document in which Jefferson displays his affection for the virtue of civic literacy?

    One doesn’t write “clearly and concisely” for its own sake.

    No, but defining a handful of different “literacies” doesn’t create them as distinct entities. In fact, all that that sort of specious differentiation suggests is obfuscation as a goal.

    How many different types of literacy are there? According to you there are at least three, although you’ve never bothered to advance a rationale for the distinctions. But why stop there? Is “professional” literacy a fine enough gradation? Perhaps it subdivides into physics, mathematics, biology and carpentry literacy. And if there’s such an entity as civic literacy perhaps there ought to be executive, legislative and judicial literacy?

    I don’t push my personal politics on anybody, ever

    In a world infested by teachers who can’t be hemmed in by the requirement to just teach, that would be an unnecessary admission. It’s instructive to note that you feel a need to assure your readers that you’re not that sort of instructor.

    I have strong ratings on places like rateyourprofessor.com.

    No, you have average ratings at ratemyprofessors.com.

    And because I believe in transparency and accountability, I post my courses publicly on my web page: http://faculty.deanza.fhda.edu/lovasjohn

    Finally, some evidence of any virtue.

    So what’s your claim to expertise in teaching college composition, Allen?

    Asked and answered.

  16. Hey Allen, good job catching the Jefferson name drop. John L, I’ve got a feeling that Mr. Jefferson would have a huge problem with an institution funded by government teaching civics. He knew that the people had to be skeptical of government power for this to remain a free country. Read his writings on government and look at what he did as president, and you’ll see his position on education in a whole new light. He was not advocating education by government so that government would run smoothly, he was advocating education so that people would be aware enough to rein in the government if it got out of control.

  17. “I’ve got a feeling that Mr. Jefferson would have a huge problem with an institution funded by government teaching civics.”

    Er, and how exactly does that square with his founding the University of Virginia?

  18. Dave, I hadn’t considered that. Even though he founded UVa, I still think he would have a problem with public institutions being the primary source of civics education. It must be remembered that civics was much more a part of society for those allowed to participate in the political process, so civics education was much more pervasive than it is now. Therefore UVa, a public institution, was probably never intended by Jefferson to be the students only or primary introduction to civics.

    Also, if Jefferson were to see what education has become, I think he’d be deeply troubled by the pro-government mentality on public school campuses, primary, secondary, and collegiate. Of course, when Jefferson founded UVa, he could not have seen the drastic shift towards collectivism and centralization which swept the nation, and transformed our universities, in the early 20th century.

    Instead of people growing up and learning to trust themselves, for the last century we’ve had people growing up and learning to trust government. We’ve been taught that government can sacrifice individual rights, especially property rights, for the so-called common good. Jefferson, indeed any of the framers, would be deeply saddened by this.

    So, while Mr. Jefferson did found UVa as a public university, I doubt that he intended to create anything like the modern public university, which has been largely shaped by collectivist, not individualisy, ideals. Further, I think Jefferson would judge our civics education by how accountable we held our government. With an incumbent re-election rate that hovers between 96% and 98%, he would likely hold a very dim view of it. And when he got around to looking at how civics education works today, he would look at who does the educating, namely public schools, and see the problem quite clearly.

    (Dave J, thanks for calling me on that and making me think it through a little. ~Adrian~)

  19. We agree that Jefferson promoted universal public education so that the citizenry could keep a check on the government. His recommendations that were incorporated into the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 also established the notion of land grants to support public education, a formulation that eventually became part of the tradition of local control of schools, through locally elected school boards. These governance arrangements were always seen as separate from city, county and state governments. It’s in that sense that public education is not government, though it certainly operates within the constitutional frames of both nation and state.

    The ability of local schools to govern themselves have been undermined by two forces: liberal efforts to get “equalization” (same dollars per student, regardless of local community wealth) and conservative efforts to limit property taxes by shifting school funding primarily to state legislatures (e.g. Proposition 13 in California).

    Apparently everyone reads Jefferson to his own purposes. What I call “civic literacy” was at the heart of Jefferson’s support for universal public schooling. He wanted a citizenry educated enough to effectively critique government power.

    The United States is virtually the only country in the world to require college composition for a degree in almost every university and college. The history of that requirement is complex, but one common rationale has been to provide critical reading and writing skills for citizenship. Now you can claim that should not be so if you like, but that’s the history of the requirement.

    As for the “expertise of the consumer” claim, students are not customers. Students don’t decide what a course includes. While it’s increasingly common for students to treat education as a commodity (I paid my money, give me my “A”), I happen to be one of the curmudgeons who thinks that education is a humanistic endeavor, marked by inquiry and critique. I’m not cooking and serving steaks. The analogy doesn’t hold. If you don’t like the course I offer, take another instructor.

  20. John L – I posed the following question to you and have yet to hear an answer for it: “Is it possible for a government-run institution to impart the necessary skepticism of governments, from local to federal, and even international, which allows citizens to remain as a check and balance on their power?”

    Also, I agree with your views on the expertise of the consumer claims. I find the “I paid my money, give me my A” mentality especially sad. Once a student commits to a course, he’s commited to do the work and will get the grade he’s earned. So, in that regard, keep being a curmudgeon.

    ~Adrian~

  21. Adrian,

    I thought I gave a partial answer to your question in my distinguishing school governance (school boards elected independently with their own taxing power) from that of “government.” I don’t find it helpful to blend schools in with representative government.

    Assuming the governance structure provides protections for teacher independence (tenure, for example), then a school curriculum could develop that promotes critical analysis. That’s my view of the courses I teach which are all part of general education requirements, thus the part of the curriculum intended to develop a critically aware individual.

    Over the past 20 years or so, higher education has been greatly commodified, which puts pressure on high schools to produce students who fit entrance requirements, not students who think for themselves.

    To answer your question directly, I think public schools could develop a curriculum that promotes critical thinking and individualism in the Jeffersonian mode. I also think enormous forces (especially mediated ones) make this increasingly difficult.

  22. John L – I understand your point on governance, and it is accurate for universities, but I don’t think it holds true for K-12 education anymore, since much of what has been taught is determined at the state level. I also get the feeling that these are some of the enormous forces of which you speak. The fact the civics curricula on the K-12 level are determined by state bureaucracies does not give me hope that they will educate students to be critical of government.

    In fact, my own high school government and econ classes had huge pro-government, pro-centralization biases. (Gov/Econ was the civics program at my school.) The government class made FDR out to be a hero for expanding government to help the people, and lambasted Reagan for cutting government. Three weeks were spent on Marxist theory in econ, yet the class never brought up F.A. Hayek, who is considered to be one of economics greatest minds. And this class was taught by a straight-out-of-the-book teacher, which means that these biases were in the textbooks adopted by the state.

    What I advocate is local control of curricula, where the state’s self-interest would be much less pronounced. Leaving it up to the public colleges to undo twelve years of pro-government bias isn’t fair, and almost all the professors I’ve met have no interest in undoing that bias, since they harbor it themselves. If you’re different in that regard, I appluad you.

    ~Adrian~

  23. “If you are different in that regard…”

    Well, I’ve never felt a need to support any particular government arrangement–I’m an anarchist at heart, though I don’t find that a practical option right now. I have as much concern about how corporations concentrate power as I do about how governments concentrate power. I’ve been a Jeffersonian on education since I did a report on his ideas in 8th grade.

    My longtime retirement fantasy was that I’d set up a print shop in my garage, write broadsides against the city council and school board and then walk around downtown handing them out. Now that I’ve discovered blogging, I may save myself the trouble of setting up a printing operation. : )

  24. On the corporate power vs. government power, I’m always a little more afraid of government power since government power can be backed by force if necessary, while no matter how powerful WalMart gets, they can never arrest me for not shopping there. Just a thought.