Promoting Political Engagement through American Government Classes

Article excerpt

American government is the only course that all students are required to take while earning their degrees at Michigan's Oakland Community College (OCC). This unique status brings with it scrutiny from a number of groups: students from every academic and technical field, many of whom approach the course with less-than-fond memories of the American government class required for a high school diploma; collegewide review committees, who periodically wonder if the stand-alone status of this course is still justified after more than forty years; and local business and government leaders who seek employees and citizens who will participate in the political process with high interest and acumen.

As is the case with most classes, students will get more out of studying American government if they understand its importance and practicality in their everyday lives. Similarly, faculty outside the political science discipline and the larger community will develop an appreciation and enthusiasm for the work accomplished in the class if they have an opportunity to understand and witness the benefits the course brings to the college and to society as a whole. By developing a curriculum that is rich with both principles and application, American government teachers can overcome the initial cynicism that surrounds the course and provide students with the knowledge and experience needed to counter the cynicism that often permeates public attitudes toward government and the political process.

FINDING RELEVANCE IN EVERYDAY POLITICAL EXPERIENCES

The first step in developing relevance is to make sure students fully understand the depth of their daily political experiences. At OCC's Auburn Hills campus, all class sessions include time to discuss current political events, and give students opportunities to sharpen their critical thinking and communication skills. This proves to be important, since many students use news sources that offer a surface view of current events, and observe political discussions that involve more chair throwing than respectful listening. The recent Democratic primary elections, in which the Democratic National Committee ruled that Michigan's pledged delegates and superdelegates would not count in the nominating contest after Michigan moved its primary to January, served as a perfect opportunity to relate the fundamentals of political parties to today's world. It also created an opportunity to discuss the relationship between political parties, the Constitution, and the attitudes of the Founding Fathers toward parties. By including these discussions, and assigning students the task of finding recent newspaper articles focused on government fundamentals, teachers give students the chance to reflect and respond to a variety of political issues, and to those holding differing viewpoints on those issues.

Once these individual skills are sharpened, there are many ways the classroom can be utilized to politically engage students, beyond the traditional lecture technique. Based on an experiential pedagogical approach, one set of exercises asks students to identify concerns that are relevant to them and act on those concerns, first at an individual level, and then to higher levels of collective engagement such as student issues conventions. One very successful individual-level technique has been an exercise that challenges a student to identify an issue that concerns him or her, and to "take action" on the issue in the political community. The scope of that political community is linked to the specific concern of the student. For example, political communities can be conceptualized at the local level when students choose an issue like getting a stop sign on a street corner, which requires communication with local government officials. The political community moves to a different level when students select broader concerns such as environmental issues, which often requires contact with state, national, and global-level administrators and institutions. …