For years, I have been trying to figure out what it will take to make my students care about politics, to believe that elections do matter. I don’t take sides in the classroom; I don’t play the “politically correct” game. I’ll take whatever position the students don’t take: I think the only way to state your own position persuasively is to spend as much time listening and analyzing the other side as you do convincing yourself of your own case.
I do my politics outside the classroom, not inside. I have too much respect for my students to think that I can persuade them of my views, and too much respect for the learning experience even to try. In my book, that would be wrong.
But I do believe in civic literacy. I believe it is just as important as computer literacy. A healthy democracy depends on its people’s caring, understanding and participating in politics. Sometimes I despair, not because students are Republicans instead of Democrats, but because they don’t care at all. Year after year, I have visited colleges and universities across the country and seen half the students raise their hands when I ask who didn’t vote in the last election. And if half are raising their hands, you know the real number is even higher. And these are students who have voluntarily come to hear me speak.
What will it take? I have asked myself over and over.
I have finally found the answer. It took Donald Trump.
The election of Donald Trump has changed the nature of the political debate in America, and that applies with perhaps greater force to young people. As my former boss Michael Dukakis, who has been teaching at Northeastern
University for many years, recently wrote to me: “Trump in an interesting kind of way has really turned my students on to public service. They now really believe that elections matter.”
Many of my students shake their heads in disbelief. Others are fierce defenders. But no one — literally no one — raises their hand and says they don’t care. Having believed the media, and even some Trump supporters, that the president couldn’t possibly win, that Hillary Clinton had this in the bag, that no one would elect a reality show host as president, many young people simply did not vote. That will not be the case in the next election.
And it’s not just young people. People literally stop me to tell me they are addicted to the news. To be honest, I listen to music more than I ever have before, simply because it has become difficult to hear the same troubling stories over and over. But for people who have never followed politics, who have dismissed public service, who have been saying for years that we have two parties but not two different points of view, reality has finally bitten.
In the short run, I wish it were otherwise. I wish we could have woken up a generation without the price I believe we will pay in the short run. But the irony is that Donald Trump may have unintentionally inspired a generation in much the same way John F. Kennedy did, if not for the same reasons.