Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Students take Ralph Nader’s suggestion, push for civic engagement course

Last spring, Ralph Nader–consumer advocate, lawyer, author and former presidential candidate–filled Cordiner Hall with his presentation, “Going Green: Getting it to the Bottom Line.” Among the thought-provoking topics and opinions Nader shared, one of the most warmly-received in the Whitman community was his call for civic engagement courses on college campuses.

Sophomores Lesli Meekins and Diana Boesch are among a group of four students who waited to see if anyone would take Nader’s call to action seriously. When no one else took the lead on a creating the suggested civic skills course, the team took matters into their own hands.

Based off of the curricula of similar courses at schools such as Mills College, Harvard and the University of Illinois, the group has already drafted a syllabus for the course. The five to six week course would be taught by professors from several departments and would be offered for one or two credits. Proposed topics covered would include what an informed citizen should know about government, legal and social methods of engagement in politics and more direct interaction with the political process, such as through a field trip to the state capitol.

Despite the group’s organization, it has been a challenge to muster the support previously displayed during Nader’s lecture in the Whitman student body today.

“The biggest road block for us now is the lack of student response. We are hoping to have students help us to design this course in a way that best suits their needs and interests, but it is difficult to gauge student interest when only a few people have responded to our e-mails,” said Meekins.

College students are often chided in the political sphere for being apathetic or reactionary, and this course may guide Whitman students towards debunking this stereotype.

“Whitties are very interested in their surroundings, but when push comes to shove we don’t always know how to apply what we’ve learned in a positive way, especially when we’re bogged down with midterms and papers,” said Boesch.

When students were polled about their interest in the civics course, they offered a mixed response depending on their other course workload and major requirements.

“The course itself sounds interesting, but I feel that more politics majors and less of the chemistry [to] biology majors would be interested,” said sophomore Chris Andrews.

“I would definitely take it,” said senior Jay Richards. “I am a politics major and I still lose track of what’s going on in the world politically sometimes.”

The group of students putting on the seminar plans to engage in dialogue with interested professors in hopes of having a working course by the fall semester of 2011.

However, students don’t necessarily need to learn civic engagement skills through such a targeted class. Associate Professor of Politics Aaron Bobrow-Strain, speaking personally, said that learning about civic engagement occurs through a variety of existing courses, though he’d be happy for there to be additional opportunities.

“There are already courses, in the Politics department and in other departments, that promote civic engagement and social change in different forms,” he said in an e-mail. “There are community-based research courses, classes that partner students with local non-profits, classes that involve internships or volunteer work, classes where students meet with activist groups (both local and non-local), classes where students are asked to submit op-eds about public policy.   There’s even a course that gives students experience lobbying in Olympia.   I think that it would be great to have more courses and more support from the college for experimenting with different approaches to civic engagement.   I’d hate to see all those diverse approaches to civic engagement collapsed into one class that was supposed to be the class on civic engagement.”

Students and members of the Whitman community who are interested in learning about or helping to start up the new civics seminar are invited to drop by the Fine Arts House at 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 2 for desserts and an informational discussion.

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