Sunday, January 25, 2009

The American Freshman, Politics, and Engagement in the Obama Years

He/She is getting more political

A record number of incoming college students are politically engaged, with 85.9 percent reporting that they frequently or occasionally discussed politics inthe last year.

According to that self-reported statistic, freshmen have never been more politically active. They came close in the 1992 and 1968 elections, but 2008 still edges them out (continuing the trend of increasing involvement since the 2000 election).

But don't get too excited: even if they talk about politics, it doesn't actually mean that they actually care about political issues...
After a record low of 28.1 percent was reported in 2000, post-9/11 freshmen have shown increased interest in keeping up to date in political affairs, rising to 39.5 percent in 2008. At the same time, however, these students have not yet surpassed their parents’generation (baby boomers): Over 60 percent of students in 1966 reported that keeping up to date with politicalaffairs was an important personal goal.

See, talking about politics isn't the same as actually being politically engaged. To some extent, we should obviously expect this increase in political table conversation, given the historic significance of this past election: we had the first viable woman and black candidates running for President this election cycle. Plus, there was the opportunity for a major shift in political policy, as we have already seen in the first couple days of the Obama administration.

However, it's still rather disturbing to see such ambivalence about political issues among college students. Part of the promise of the Obama presidency was that it would re-engage parts of the political spectrum that had become depressed with the political scene. If college freshman are any indication, massive engagement is not really viable: all politics really consists of is table-talk, which becomes even more dangerous when you consider other trends:

Trends also indicate that fewer students today characterize themselves as middle-of-the road in terms of their overall political view. This category has steadily declined and is at an all time low (43.3 percent), returning to roughly the same percentage as in 1970.

Which isn't surprising. If you just talk about politics, but don't actually care to learn about issues, you probably just created an echo chamber.

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