Who Will Be Tomorrow's Politicians?

May 20, 2015

U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC
Credit nostri-imago / Flickr / Creative Commons

In my years of teaching political science, only a few students have expressed a desire to be a professional politician or to run for political office. Recently, I asked a class at Wichita State if they were encouraged while growing up to think about politics as a career. Only one person raised a hand.

A new study shows that at least 90 percent of high school and college students want nothing to do with politics. Today’s students prefer careers as executives or other professionals. A major reason is that they have grown up around adults who say little or nothing about politics, or they hear negative views expressed about politics and politicians.

Another reason is that we have little that unites us as a people in facing crises such as The Great Depression of the 1930s or World War II, when politicians and some military generals were revered and admired for their work in trying to solve these crises. People felt close and connected to FDR as they listened to his “fireside chats” on radio and heard his proposals for lifting us out of The Great Depression.

Another explanation is the educational emphasis on science, technology, engineering, business and innovation. Few students take courses in the humanities, which include classical studies like Aristotle’s Politics, Plato’s Republic, and Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Many universities and colleges, including Wichita State, do not require all of its students to take an American history or American politics course in order to graduate.

Young people today pay little or no attention to stories about politics in the mass media, and they do not engage in ongoing discussions about politics. The headline of a story in The New York Times that read, “Oh no, don’t go there,” is telling about how students shun lively discussions with their peers about politics or religion for fear that they will be disliked if disagreements are expressed. This is in sharp contrast to what I experienced as an undergraduate a few decades ago, and this should sound an alarm about the need for more political discussion and interest in politics as a career if we are to maintain and preserve our democracy.

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