One of the best things about university life is the rhythm it gives to a year. For university professors like me, breaks for summer, which are just beginning, and breaks between terms allow for a bit of breathing room, time to reflect on the year past and plan for the year ahead. But not all such planning is about courses to teach and research to conduct. Nope, sometimes we have to think about the relationship between electoral politics and education.
Beyond right-wingers clamoring for the hiring of more conservative faculty (affirmative action for conservatives? The world is turned upside down!), an issue of long-term political demographics makes the American university system a key front in the ongoing culture wars.
In a New York Times Magazine article ["Fertile Red States," Dec 12, 2004], published right around the last semester break, Noam Scheiber pointed out President Bush's successes in the states with the highest fertility rates. As if Urban Archipelago dwellers don't have enough to worry about. The message: Red states are outbreeding blue states, and the recent Great Leap Rightward is just the beginning.
As an atypical Irish-Catholic American, this hits close to home. I'm a 43-year-old man without children (and none on the way, thanks to surgical intervention) and this news suggests I should feel complicit in my own political marginalization. If I had bred with the precocity and frequency of my parents, I'd have had three adult children voting in the last election, Chicago Democrats one and all.
That, of course, assumes that my putative children would vote like Dad. Scheiber quotes a demographer who claims that "it's a truism of social science" that people vote like their parents.
Well, every "truism of social science" can also be described as a "false-ism" or "sheerest bullshit." If people all voted like their parents, then we'd all be either Jeffersonians or Federalists. Every progressive political movement in American history has been fueled by people not voting like their parents.
But even if this prediction comes to pass, one other fact remains which makes me sanguine that blue America's Urban Archipelago can grow larger, more contiguous, and more politically powerful even without my offspring.
If we assume that red-state secondary education systems don't utterly collapse due to underfunding caused by Republican anti-tax mania, then colleges and universities will come into play. The children of red states will seek a higher education, and that education will very often happen in blue states or blue islands in red states. For the foreseeable future, loyal dittoheads will continue to drop off their children at the dorms. After a teary-eyed hug, Mom and Dad will drive their SUV off toward the nearest gas station, leaving their beloved progeny behind.
And then they are all mine.
I don't need to have kids to create mini-me voters: I get classrooms full of other people's kids, most already of voting age. And I'm not alone. As right-wing hysterics have recently noticed, universities in America are dominated by lefties like me. I suspect the main reason for this is that most academics I know are willing to forego making a big pile of money in order to, you know, think for a living. (Right-wingers prefer the professions where you make big piles of money by thinking about offshoring red-state manufacturing jobs to Red China.)
So what happens to the children of the red states in my classroom that makes me confident that this demographic time bomb will fizzle?
It isn't what right-wingers think: I don't indoctrinate my students. My job, as an English professor, is to teach my students to read deeply, to think for themselves, and then to write their own arguments effectively. I suspect that the Bill O'Reillys of the world believe that lefty academics engage in all-out Maoist Cultural Revolution- style indoctrination because that's the only way they can picture a classroom, not having been in one for a while or ever. That, and the fact that some students have never heard anyone disagree with their parents' parroting of Fox News and so they perceive the mere presentation of opposing points of view as attempted indoctrination.
As our politics show all too often, we lefties have hyper-developed consciences. To force students to agree with me would be unthinkable, not to mention boring. What really happens to students in my classroom is this: They get exposed to the world around them, especially the city of Chicago (located in Cook County, which provided Kerry's largest vote margin even without my nonexistent offspring). One of the classes I most frequently teach is on Chicago writers, and it exposes children from red towns, counties, and cities to people unlike themselves and their parents. To give just one example, when they see racial conflict and the criminal justice system from the point of view of a black man in 1930s Chicago (Richard Wright), they have to ponder the worth of political screeds about the sources of, and solutions to, urban crime. The class also includes a tour of Chicago, conducted on foot and public transportation. In the many times I've done this tour, two things never fail to happen:
First, someone on the El always fucks with me while I lecture my students. One time, I was told in no uncertain terms by two elderly women that if my educational tour did not include the tourist trap Navy Pier, I was not fit to call myself a teacher. Another time, a drunk St. Louis Cardinals fan gave me a dollar tip as he reeled off the train at Wrigley Field and said "Thanksh fer th' tour, maaaan, ver' 'formative." I always shrug off these incidents. Tolerating other people, in life in general and on public transportation in particular, is one aspect of urban living that translates directly into political values. The world is a crowded place and we all gotta get along. We're all in the same train car together.
Second, someone always interrupts me as I'm talking about a particular writer or public space and adds his or her own two cents. Mostly, it's misinformed bullshit. But sometimes some passing stranger or street mope has an interesting insight, and I get out my notebook and write down what I've just learned. I'm not much on the theory of role models-if people just did what they saw people around them doing, the world would be in even worse shape. But when students see their middle-aged professor heeding a homeless guy who hangs out at a public fountain dedicated to a particular author, it stretches their brains, whether they're from a red state or a blue one.
And so whatever the demographic models suggest, I'm not worried about the red staters outbreeding blue staters. As long as their kids need a college education, they'll come to a blue town, county, or city, and there they will learn a thing or two about the world in which they live-and vote.
Bill Savage is a lecturer in the Department of English, and a college adviser, at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.