My motivation for pursuing what can be an all-too-frustrating task was initially selfish. I was a political science major. I didn't have the guts to denigrate characters in political attack ads or the logical skills needed to practice the law. I liked living and working on a college campus as an undergraduate. Voila. Student affairs allows me to straddle the line between politics and education.
But, as many a graduate student has come to know, this line I speak of is fictional. That's the lesson I have learned this year, perhaps nowhere better than these dialogues. Navigating a curriculum rooted in social constructivism, understanding that there is never a "right" answer, but merely socially-constructed knowledge, has sharpened my realization that politics is in everything we do. Yes, it's in presidential elections every four years. It is in the partisan bickering and strategizing that goes on in Washington. But it is also in fraternity and sorority elections. It is in where you get your coffee in the morning. It is in the choice of news you wish to consume. Politics is everywhere.
My experience with undergraduates at my former place of employment and Miami reveals to me that I was not alone in seeing the line. Politics can be compartmentalized into a convenient box. Students associate politics with Washington DC, voting, Congress, and the like. In one of our political dialogues, one of the students expressed boredom with politics. "Whenever I see politics on TV I change the channel," they explained. "It's just not fun. I don't really want to get involved." Yet, the act of channelsurfing itself is political. They did get involved in their decision to forgo public affairs programming.
I am recognizing that while higher education staff and faculty spend quite a bit of time on social justice education, we tend to spend less time on civic education, developing the set of tools needed to engage in one's community. While service-learning and voter registration drives have been trendy on college campuses during the last two presidential campaigns, engagement in local and state politics continues to suffer. It's no wonder students associate politics with dysfunctional Washington.
If we were to take a problem-solving approach to learning, we might make some headway, ridding higher education of the “mind/body split” that compartmentalizes intellectual discussion from one’s public actions (hooks, 1994, p. 16). A problem-solving approach would require the construction of deep and sustainable relationships between student affairs employees, faculty, and administration; a problem-solving-based model would necessitate an emphasis on the common good, meaning that students would see departments and offices role model this approach by collectivizing agendas as much as possible and placing the institution’s mission (which would ideally emphasize problem-solving) above their own. In addition to the construction of strong relationships, a problem-solving approach would encourage student affairs educators to create Freirian relationships with students; with an emphasis on community problem-solving, student/teacher and teacher/student “learn from and teach each other” – “doing ‘with’ rather than ‘for’” (as cited in Manning, 1994, p. 95).
In this model, collaboration is the name of the game. The common good is at the heart of this effort, with problems uniting academic disciplines, student affairs staff, and students as opposed to egos, departments that are siloed off from each other, and disengaged students. To get here, we do need to re-examine our social justice efforts.
In order to face society’s problems today, our students must first begin the process of understanding and exploring their identity, their values, and how they view difference. In addition, the educational nature of problem-solving demands from students the ability to see an issue from another’s perspective. Following these tough lessons, students also need to learn about power and privilege, the source of many of the problems our students will be trying to solve.
As we redouble our efforts to solve these problems, politics does not have to be perceived as a bad thing. The derivation of the word -- “polis” is the Greek word for a city or state, thus “politikos,” or politics, means affairs/issues of the city/state -- is hardly negative. What is bad is that college students associate the broken system currently in Washington with politics; consequently, "politics" gets a bad name and other, more positive opportunities for political engagement become invisible. With just a bit more effort, all of us associated with higher education can reveal the other side of politics -- civil conversations, learning from others, changing their realities to help themselves and others -- and align programs with our institutions' "citizenship"-laden mission statements.
hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York: Routledge.
Manning, K. (1994). Liberation theology and student affairs. Journal of College Student Development, 35, 94-97.