In my capacity as an adjunct professor of communications at a university in Connecticut I have been occasionally encouraged and also mightily discouraged at the level of knowledge and understanding some students have of the world around us.
So few of the underclassmen seem to have any idea what is going on in terms of war, politics, the environment, or human rights that broadening their horizons seems to be an impossible task.
Oh, sure, ask them about the latest idiot celebrity to drive drunk, film themselves having sex, flash their private parts to photographers, run their mouths about President Bush or be sent away to detox for drug addictions and they can recite chapter and verse.
But ask them about Gen. David Petraeus or other notable figures in American military and political history and you'll get only blank stares. They are vaguely aware there is a war going on against a concept called 'terror,' but it is somewhere else, and only a few actually know someone who is fighting it.
The students I teach represent a cross-section of America - all races, religions, and ethnic backgrounds. Occasionally I teach students from other countries. There are city kids, country kids, suburban kids, poor kids with great minds who are in college on scholarships, rich kids who don't worry much about the cost of tuition, and middle class kids who mix after school jobs with help from the folks to get through, semester by semester.
Nearly half of my students are African-American, and contrary to what most of us see in the mainstream media, there are just as many rich black kids, and middle class black kids from suburban schools, as there are city kids who still have the trappings of the street clinging to their words and their attitudes.
It is a little known factor of American economics that taken as a separate demographic, black Americans have a gross domestic product nearly equal to that of France, which has nearly twice the population. I see the results of that economic prosperity in every class, both in the students who are benefiting from their parents' successes, and those who are working to duplicate and surpass those successes.
Many of my more encouraging moments as an instructor come from the enthusiasm and determination evidenced by black students. Two years ago I asked a sophomore from New York City what his goals were after graduation and he told me "to be an international entrepreneur."
I was at once amazed and quite pleased, considering that when I went to college 'entrepreneur' wasn't in the syllabus, and I never knew anyone who had chosen that career path, much less planned for it and was working to make it come true.
When questions about the war or politics do come up, I do my best to let my students know how I view the world without trying to force my beliefs on them. I would much rather tell them what I believe and why, backed up by decades of life experiences starting with Vietnam, which is a very popular subject, and let them find out from their own experiences that I told them the truth.
In the long run, that will be better for them, and for the nation.
But most of them time, when politics comes up, it is met with wide yawns. Most students at this point in their lives have no political point of reference, and my best efforts to engage them on political matters seem to have little impact.
Yet, again, occasionally there are surprises. Some students can only repeat media talking points, but there are others, more actually, who think for themselves and don't like being taken for granted. There are young women of voting age who think Hillary Clinton has a ton of nerve saying she has their vote locked up just because she is a woman. (Note to the Clinton campaign: No you don't.)
It also might surprise some pollsters that many black students I have taught are quite conservative in their views, and believe in less government, lower taxes, oppose abortion and support the military. That in itself should wake up the political strategists who think they have the college vote all figured out.
But my biggest reward of this past semester, despite being a Caucasian, male, Republican, who just helped engineer a major Republican upset in my political strategy work, came from a young black man who has become genuinely and intensely interested in politics, thanks not to me, but to Democratic Sen. Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey.
Early on he had no more interest in the presidential race than any of his classmates. It simply was not on his radar.
But a third of the way through the semester I assigned each student a five minute speech on a current event. I had an ulterior motive here, I will admit - I wanted them to get their noses out of video games and celebrity watching and read a paper or watch the news. In fact, the only subject that was off-limits was anything that had a celebrity as a focus.
It was a tremendously successful exercise.
The young man in question was one of only a handful who reported on the presidential primary races, but he was genuinely energized by Sen. Barack Obama, a black man with a real shot at being nominated by the Democratic Party.
In the interests of full disclosure, I'll say right up front that I disagree with Sen. Obama on two main points, defense, as it relates to the War in Iraq, and gun control. And don't label me a gun nut. I'm not and at some time in the future I'll go into that further. I let my student know my political preferences, not to try to change his mind, but to let him know where I stood.
As the semester progressed he did two more speeches on Obama's campaign, and his final speech was on Oprah's decision to support Obama.
Like most students who are faced with speaking in front of an audience for the first time, this young man started out in August a bit hesitant and shy. But he delivered his final speech with strength, conviction, a solid understanding of the components of a speech, and a true interest in the America political process.
It doesn't matter to me that he has chosen a candidate with whom I disagree. Had Colin Powell been the first black American to run for president I would have been much more inclined to vote for him, because we both share the Vietnam experience and his political views are more closely aligned with mine.
But this wasn't about my preferred candidate. This was about a young man who had a true awakening to his potential to make a difference in the American political process and it was wonderful to see it unfold. When we discussed politics after classes, I told the student why I believed differently than Sen. Obama, but also filled him in on what the senator stands for, why, and what he will have to accomplish - and in some cases overcome - within his party to win the nomination. I told the truth, stayed away from partisan issues and was as complete as I could be.
Some in my party will say I missed an opportunity to convert this student to the Republican point of view. I disagree. I believe that if I had tried to force my opinions and beliefs on him I would have turned him off and turned him away.
Besides, when you teach, a former student shows up or calls every so often, and lets you know that you made a difference in their life.
Perhaps the young man I have been speaking of will find a career in politics, either as a candidate or in the myriad careers that surround the political process. If that happens, I can take a touch of credit for opening the door a crack, and Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey can take a huge chunk of credit for showing him that on the other side there can be a real, and rewarding future.
I firmly believe that if America is to achieve its true potential, we all have to share in the process, and share in the work that makes up that process. Between August and December I watched a young man of African-American descent progress through an eye-opening, potentially life-changing experience, and I am sure that in the future he will be making a significant contribution.
It will be interesting to watch the ripples that emanate from here. I hope he gets an opportunity to meet or work for the senator. Maybe some day he'll even meet Oprah.
Who knows, perhaps if we run into each other a decade or so from now, he will have figured things out for himself and become a Republican. It happens to a lot of young people, once they leave school and have to pay their first tax bill.
Saturday, December 08, 2007