The professor is lecturing about nuclear deterrence—how it has developed, key insights and problems, and whether it contributes to a stable international system. Though this course, like many at the University of Chicago, is steeped in theory, the real-world implications are easy to see: The professor is offering his students a framework through which to understand the problems of the world they may one day be confronting.
Or at least, he would be, if anyone were listening. A few students are diligently taking notes, but many in the lecture are otherwise occupied. One student is reading a New York Times article about how the government shutdown is encouraging more Democrats to run for the House of Representatives. One student is refreshing Real Clear Politics, seemingly concerned about whether their aggregate polling data is changing minute to minute. Another is doing the same with The Cook Political Report, furiously searching for news on the special election in Florida’s thirteenth district.
Some might commend these students for paying attention to public affairs, when so many young people abstain from any form of civic engagement. Yet these students appear concerned with only one aspect of politics: who is winning. In a world where Nate Silver (A.B. '00) is king of political nerds and complex debates must be condensed into 140-character tweets, this focus on winning rather than governing has become pervasive. On every news channel, conversations about the government shutdown centered on which party would receive the blame, rather than the shutdown’s impact or systemic causes. Conversations about technical issues with the healthcare.gov website revolve around how politically damaging this is for the President, rather than how to fix it or how to help the uninsured in the meantime. People treat government like fantasy football, keeping track of stats, wins, losses, and how to improve their team. Governance has gotten lost in the mix.
This twisted view of politics as a game to be won, rather than a method of improving people’s lives, has spread to the University of Chicago. Political science students spend their time refreshing the latest poll data and waiting for political leaders to tweet. The Institute of Politics, though commendable in its efforts to bring the real world to students, has not helped prevent this; the mere fact that it is led by a political strategist, rather than a practitioner of policy or governance, shows where its focus lies. Events, such as the exhaustive, quarter-long review of the 2012 election that took place last winter quarter, give students an excellent understanding of how politics works. They do not, however, emphasize that the end goal of the political process is good policy. They do not tell students interested in public service that the key word in that profession is “service.” They reinforce the dangerous notion that government is simply an arena for battles of pithy sound bites, rather than an institution for furthering the public interest.
Certainly students must be prepared to enter the political world as it is, rather than as it should be. This means that, yes, they should understand that politics is often treated as a game, and they should be able to win that game. However, there are enough poll junkies and ego robots on Capitol Hill already. The University of Chicago is known for focusing on theory and critical thinking. Though this may not seem practical, perhaps the broken institutions in Washington could use a few more critical thinkers. Encouraging students, both in the classroom and in extracurricular activities, to focus on the substance of government, rather than the superficial political competitions that play out on cable news, probably won’t change the world. But the least we can do is avoid being yet another source of mindless political hacks jockeying for a win. We should hold our students and graduates to a higher standard.
Mattea Greene is a fourth-year in the College majoring in political science.