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Time to teach relevance of government

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Kendrick Wilson
By Kendrick Wilson
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Tuesday February 11, 2003

"The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter."
Sir Winston Churchill

A five-minute conversation with the average University Arizona student doesn't speak much better for democracy. For many UA students, government classes end after high school. All too few students participate in political events on or near campus. Voter turnout is painfully low every year in the precinct that includes the UA dorms. For most students, especially science majors, political awareness and knowledge of government are minimal, and in some cases, nonexistent.

Four students from a variety of majors were asked to answer a few short survey questions about government and politics. None of their majors required them to take any government or civics classes in college, and none had taken one as an elective. The answers typified the profile of an apolitical, non-civic-minded UA student.

One pre-business sophomore could not recall Arizona's governor (Janet Napolitano), the U.S. Secretary of State (Colin Powell), the responsibilities of the U.S. Secretary of State (diplomatic foreign relations), or when general elections are held (the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November), and could not give a modern political definition of liberal or conservative.

A media arts sophomore also could not identify the governor, was at a loss as to who the Secretary of State is, and could not recall when general elections were held.

A pre-physiology senior knew slightly more and identified Janet Napolitano as our current governor, but still drew a blank when it came to the Secretary of State and the responsibilities of that office.

A pre-nursing sophomore gave the common wrong answer that the president (rather than Congress) has the constitutional authority to declare war although this is a constitutional provision our current president often forgets and could not identify any of the five "Miranda" rights when one is being questioned by a police officer.

All but one student classified Jimmy Carter as a conservative, and the remaining student gave no answer as to his political leanings. The pre-physiology senior even guessed that George W. Bush could be classified as liberal.

These students are all on their way to professional careers and will soon join the upper socioeconomic sector of American society, yet they barely have a minimal knowledge of government and politics.

When so many people are uninterested and uninformed, a democracy cannot function and becomes an oligarchy. Only those who show up to the polls make decisions.

If UA hopes to turn out graduates who are well-rounded and well-educated individuals, at least a one-unit government and politics colloquia-like class must be required for all majors.

However, as UA political science professor Tom Volgy points out, simply teaching trivia doesn't accomplish much.

"I don't believe that at the university level we should be teaching the basics that should be taught at the high school level," he said. "But I would love to teach a colloquia-like government class to introduce students to the basics of why government and politics are critical and relevant to their lives."

Indeed, nearly all UA students were required to take basic government classes in high school, but lost the information somewhere along the way. Volgy believes this problem has its roots in a lack of focus on the relevance of government and politics when it is taught.

"I think people lose' this information because they don't believe that government and politics are relevant to their lives, and that most officials don't represent them and/or care about their problems," he explained. "It is only through establishing the relevance and what they can do about politics that this experience becomes important."

For many students, this relevance has never been established. This could explain why non-student members of the community almost always outnumber students at on-campus political events, including the last peace rally.

The purpose of a required colloquia-like government and politics class would not be to indoctrinate students into believing one political philosophy or another, but to help them to realize how they can make a difference. Once this happens, as political activist Doris "Granny D" Haddock puts it, democracy and justice "will have all the victories our hearts can handle."

Few students want more required classes, but the only way to reverse their apathy is to teach them how they can make a difference.


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