Teaching college students is both extremely exhilarating and extremely deflating. As a professor, I try to listen more than I talk. Most of the time, students talk about their lives and what they consider important and I am quite impressed. My current students are interested in the environment, making sure all people are treated fairly, and about how to make the country safer. In discussing the mass shooting at Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., they asked many interesting questions about the mental health system in the country and about the tension between security and freedom.
At other times, however, listening to students reminds me that some topics that I consider to be important are very irrelevant in their lives and that many people don’t wake up and think about. This week, I have been talking about the Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. In talking about Chief Justice Roberts’ majority opinion as a creative interpretation of the Constitution, I realized that very few students were as impressed with Roberts’ intellectual gymnastics as I was. In fact, when I asked the students about their thoughts about the act, not a single student asked a question or offered an opinion. One student finally said that he did not understand the issue and that it wasn’t even worth understanding.
As someone who teaches about politics, I try to stay informed about many political issues–local, national, and international. I share my thoughts to reporters, civic organizations, and almost anyone who wants to know what I think. Most of these folks are as informed as I am about the issues, if not more so. These talks sometimes get deep into the weeds, as I talk about the players and their actions in the same way a group of fantasy football addicts discuss the upcoming NFL games.
My students are more representative of average citizens and recent polls confirm that fact. A recent Elon University poll revealed that about one-third of North Carolinians knew who House Speaker Thom Tillis or Senate President Phil Berger are, despite the number of media stories about them or that pundits, like me parse every statement and action by each as if the future of the civilized world was dependent on their actions. Likewise a recent Pew Research poll indicated to about one-third of Americans know the particulars of the Affordable Care Act and a High Point University Poll indicates that most North Carolinians knew little about the major voting overhaul signed into law after the last legislative session.
My students often joke with me, telling me that I need to “get out more” because I am ignorant of popular culture or major technology advances. While I think it is sad that most Americans follow the comings and goings of Milley Cyrus or the Kardashians, it is also good to remind myself that Thom Tillis’ poll numbers in running for the Republican Senate nomination may not be as important as I consider them to be.