Redefining Our Political Culture

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I have hope in the future because I spend every day among college students. It’s an immense privilege. My optimism flows from what they do naturally – they instinctively work together. They understand teamwork, collaboration and cooperation at a level I admire. During this election season, characterized by such incredible division, they represented the very best of democracy – vigorous debate on the issues and a common understanding of mutual interest.

Living in a “swing state” during this past election cycle taught me a lot about the need for democratic renewal. Unbounded arrogance, daring political rhetoric and limitless campaign spending combined to produce a high level of electoral toxicity. I realized this when a local citizen went out of his way to approach me with a concern regarding the voter registration of our students. His fear was students who are permanent residents of other parts of Iowa, or of other states, were being registered to also vote in Pella, thus allowing them to be double counted. Having followed the registration process on campus, I was well aware of the careful steps taken to ensure integrity and could provide him reassurance. His question, which was well short of an accusation, was born of an underlying fear that brinksmanship might determine the outcome of the election.

The mechanics of our voting system are by any modern standard archaic. Many of the industrialized nations of the world, even some developing nations, have far superior technologies to record votes and validate election outcomes. Too often, the process of casting ballots has become controversial given the cumbersome nature of our varied systems among states, even within states. It’s certainly time for better procedures and the technologies clearly exist to accomplish this. I think we would all agree we do not want to have the process cast doubt on the results, so this would be a relatively easy fix if we can get ourselves better organized ahead of the next election cycle.

That said, the deeper challenge is that arguments over voting procedures also suggest an underlying distrust of the opposition. For me this is the bigger issue. How will we nurture a political culture that will avoid the demonization of the opposition? Look to the students.

Each day announcements are shared with the campus community at Central College. During the days leading up to the election, three announcements caught my eye as I scanned through the daily content. I felt a well of emotion rise as I gathered them for this posting and a deep sense of pride in our students.

Here they are:

First, an announcement from our dean of students:

Yesterday, Central hosted a satellite registration and voting station for the 2012 election. I am pleased and proud to tell you that 357 students, employees and community members registered on-site with almost all of them casting absentee ballots. The County Auditor considers this to be a very “aggressive” number and was also very pleased with the turnout. Thanks to Drew Readel, the College Democrats, College Republicans, Student Senate, and Greek Council for their coordination and support.

Second, a pair of joint announcements from the College Republicans and College Democrats:

Election Night Party TUESDAY NOV.6th @ 9 PM in UNDERGROUND MAYTAG!! Come down to watch the results of your vote and celebrate the excitement of Election Night with fellow college citizens!!! (Non-partisan, FREE food and drinks!) Sponsored by College Republicans and College Democrats.

COOKIE POLL on ELECTION DAY Tuesday Nov. 6th @ CUIFS 11am-1pm. Come cast your vote on Election Day with FREE sugar cookies!! Each cookie will have different frosting to represent each candidate! A fun and delicious way to voice your vote on campus! (Don’t forget to vote FOR REAL, too!) Sponsored by College Republicans and College Democrats.

Students will redefine our political culture. They will challenge each other on the issues and yet maintain the quality of relationships that reinforce a healthy community. I especially think the cookie votes are a great idea. I bet the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate would operate at a whole different level if this practice were to be adopted. I can hear it now. Instead of “Members will record their vote by electronic device,” we would hear, “Members will record their vote by choice of cookie.” That alone would change our political culture. I’ll buy the milk.


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14 responses to “Redefining Our Political Culture”

  1. Don Groh, '76 says:

    The political landscape isn’t changing, values being taught in the public schools BEFORE they arrive at Central have changed. No more ‘ Shop Class, Home Econ, Civics, et al. Now it’s ‘ Why Johnny has 2 Mommys, Diversity and no more recess or Gym Class ‘ The vast majority of high school students that arrive as freshmen at CUI have the maturity of 8th graders….

    • Ed Maroon says:

      I am not so sure that is the case, although I agree life classes are important. I think what they are being taught is to pass state exams, not to understand the subjects being taught. I think diversity is a great thing as the majority of the US is diverse. I think the issues at hand are more about entitlement and lack of entrepreneurship and innovation. Where is that hungry spirit to make this a better place???

    • Sherry VanAntwerp says:

      It should be the duty of parents, not schools, to teach true values. Change isn’t always bad when it comes to subject matter. My children have personal fitness, rather than “gym.” They learn about exercise activities they can utilize throughout life. I can’t recall the last time I participated in a game of whifleball or kickball, the mainstay of my highschool gym class. Shop class and home ec still exist, just by different names. Interestingly, I see more gender diversity in those classes than in the past. The world complexion is quickly transforming, and preparing children to live in that world falls upon the shoulders of both parents and schools. There isn’t a protective bubble they can live within, and even if there was isn’t that just living in fear?

  2. Anne Petrie says:

    As an exact contemporary of Mr. Groh, and a faculty member who’s worked with first-year students at Central, I have to disagree with him. The students I see are earnest, pragmatic, working hard to navigate the many changes that come with residential college life, and in many cases imbued with the change-the-world spirit that I remember fondly from the early ’70s. As for what’s being taught in high school, my 9th-grade son is taking an academic load fully comparable to what I had (except in math, where he’s ahead of me). The difference is that by this point, he’s studied the history and geography of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, and the faces in his textbooks have reflected the totality of the U.S. population, not just one segment of it. Certainly there’s cause for concern about our political climate, but I don’t think the fault can be laid at the doorstep of the public schools.

    • Don Huffman says:

      Ann, I agree with your assessment of the first-year students one sees at Central, at least for the most part. I do realize that there are also some first year students who are not earnest, pragmatic and hard working. We have always had a handful of these, most of whom are not representative of the Central students we have taught and known well, and likely these are potential dropouts, not students we’d like to remember as typical of Central. I recall many discussions in the past with colleagues, many of whom agreed that Central has often had a bi-modal distribution in the first year student population. The upper group became our dedicated majors and usually our high performance graduates. The lower group often contributed greatly to the dropouts, though some were able to change their pattern of student behavior, and with dedication and hard work became graduates, some of whom are good representative of Central in a number of areas.
      Will Central ever attain a uniformly promising group of entering students? Probably not if the current conditions in some public schools and the attitude of some families continue regarding academic work habits of their children. Study habits are pervasive, and often difficult to change.
      Until we have an “ideal entering class” at Central I expect to see the situation at Central possibly change, but not rapidly.

  3. Your observations about political life at Central are heartening, Mark. Mr. Groh, what is your evidence that college students have the maturity of 8th graders? Two disheartening aspects of today’s political culture: treating opinion as fact and distorting or denying facts.

  4. Carrie '01 says:

    As a high school social studies teacher for 11 years, it is good to hear that all our work to teach our students perspective, collaboration, and an appreciation for diversity is being noticed at the college level. Thank you for continuing this work at Central, for our students are truly living in a more diverse world than ever before and need to have the skills to be successful in this world.

  5. Tej Dhawan says:

    In his single, off-handed comment, Mr. Groh brushes aside an entire generation of hard working, committed students who are entering our schools and workforce. These children find a country turned to financial ruin by the previous generations’ (including my generation’s) excesses, yet remain hopeful, pragmatic and increasingly involved in Government as evidenced by the students’ rallies on campus. My beliefs agree with Sherry’s above — values are taught by parents, reinforced by parents, managed by parents and then only can they be supported by teachers.

    The world has changed and we can either isolate ourselves into a tiny enclave or embrace its continued evolution. I have had the opportunity to speak with freshman through seniors at Central over the last decade, speak with prospective students during their high-school years, work with middle schoolers well before their 8th-grade, and can speak from personal experience that our children demonstrate a maturity far beyond that represented by our larger society.

    Don, I invite you to enter our schools are look at the world from a 13-year old’s point of view – it will be a far different view than your own.

    • Don Huffman says:

      Dear Tej,
      Thank you for your good note. I realize that I did not address the issue of our political culture, nor did I clarify my point of Central’s bimodal distribution of our entering students at Central.
      Actually, I have and do work with public school students in the 12 to 13 yr. old group,I also have a granddaughter of this age, and I think I understand their viewpoints rather well. In a sense their “academic perspective” at this level is limited to those values which have been formed in their homes along with those of their teachers. Most of these are positive, but some of them are rather negative, more than likely from their home/parents’ perspective and in spite of their teachers. It is not surprising that some of these students have insights much more well informed than those of their parents and other adults.
      I do think that Central has, and traditionally has had a bimodal distribution of student readiness for college level academic work. Lloyd’s comments aptly describe this problem and some of the consequences. I am encouraged that he and others do often persist and succeed in undergraduate education and preparation of responsible citizenship.
      Don Huffman

  6. Eric McLuen '92 says:

    As a contemporary of Tej I would have to second his, and other’s, opinion. Parents feel schools are teaching values because they are allowing schools to raise their children treating it as free daycare. Civics is being taught to children in school but their parents are getting their lessons from the likes of Glen Beck. They are taught some children do have two mommies because some parents are in denial that homosexuality exists.

    The most important lessons I learned at Central were to think, question and if I didn’t know the answer to look for it. To me this is what maturity means, not just regurgitate what somebody else tells you to do because that is how it is done. To some in older generations this can be a terrifying attitude in children. Fortunately my parents and the faculty at Central nurtured it.

    The issue I see in the political climate is that the big money goes to the extremes. Each side spends more time and effort telling you how they are not their opponent rather than what they actually stand for.

    That being said I am glad the election is over so I can go back to answering the phone.

  7. Lloyd Sandbulte '72* says:

    Since the discussion has evolved from politics to academics, as a Central College dropout from the class of ’72, I’d like to lend my perspective.

    I came from a small school where I was near the top in my class. I did not fall into the category of not earnest or hard working, but I may have lacked pragmatism. I really struggled, dropping out in the spring of my Sophomore year. In addition to the academic struggles, I experienced a significant culture shock as a farm boy thrown in with a lot of urbanites and a political conservative encountering a political climate that blew me away. I took a year off after my Sophomore year, then finished well at Winona State, with a degree in Business Administration. Over the years I’ve reflected much on what happened and what others can learn from that.

    For one, my hopes of a chemistry major greatly over estimated my aptitude and high school preparation for college level math and science. I enjoyed and did well in the social sciences and language arts, but mistakenly saw those as tangential to my career aspirations. Immediately upon starting at Winona State, I was intrigued by Business Administration, and I also felt a better fit socially and academically. I am now approaching retirement from a successful and rewarding career that has involved much business research, analysis and written communication. Central prepared me well in those areas.

    I realize there are many students who are at risk because of not being earnest or hard working. But I feel for students who struggle for other reasons and hope that our education system at all levels is sensitive to the reasons for those struggles and has mechanisms in place to help those students succeed.

    While I left Central very disheartened, my appreciation has developed over the years as I have re-connected with the Central community as the parent of a student and through church relationships. My political views have moderated significantly, and I enjoy the thoughtful insights expressed by both the author of this blog and the respondents.

  8. Roger Martin at UToronto gives us the template — one that students today instinctively know and trust.

    Integrative Thinking is the ability to constructively face the tensions of opposing models, and instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generating a creative solution of the tensions in the form of a new model that contains elements of the individual models, but is superior to each.

    The excess of blame led me to begin blogging and tweeting on the subject of how red/blue find a common language and greater understanding.
    @writetocenter (coming soon)

  9. Rick Johnson, 71 says:

    So much on which to comment:
    First, my freshman year at Central I was a “slacker” (today’s term. In fact, I was asked to leave. After, a year at a communtiy college, I returned as a turned around student. To my Central degree I have added two Masters. I can see much from different points of view.
    Second, I am saddened by the loss of Civics in many high schools. Mine required it for graduation. Of course, many of the terms I learned then have long since been redifined. (I think my teacher then would not recognize how “conservative” and “liberal” are used these days.)
    Now to the political scene: one of the things that troubles me most is the complete lack of trust and respect each side demonstrates against the other. The feeling seems to be not that the other may be mistaken, but that they are all liars and conspirators. Whenever any issue comes forward, not matter what evidence is presented, the “other side” refuses to believe it. The first question in any discussion must now be: What proof would you accept? It is like arguing with and atheist. The only evidence they would accept would be the presence of God Almighty. That is not in my power.

  10. Oscar Szweda says:

    Promote conservative values in the GOP!