The Last Word: Dan Ponder

Dan Ponder is associate professor of political science and pre-law advisor.

One of the many pleasures of teaching political science, especially during an election year, is inviting students to engage with enduring questions of American Politics. I spend much of my time doing just that on the third floor of Burnham Hall. On any given day, we discuss such constitutional foundations as the First Amendment and the political engagement protected by that amendment, which is a provocative topic. There is a rich array of examples, given that the landscape of American political history is dotted with episodes of political activism. Americans have pitched bags of tea into Boston Harbor to protest a British-backed monopoly, abolitionists sought to end slavery, and citizens demanded political equality for women and African-Americans. Now, modern day Tea Partiers and the Occupy Wall Street movement attest that activism is part of our heritage.

Those events are often romanticized and held up as hallmarks of the United States' love of democracy, but, in reality, only about five percent of Americans claim to have ever taken part in a political demonstration, while the rates are far higher in countries such as Australia and Spain. Indeed, the American public takes a dim view of what political scientists call "unconventional participation." Strikes, sit-ins and other types of demonstrations are protected by the First Amendment but enjoy little overall support. There's the irony, for all of the support Americans have for democracy, they tend to support only "conventional" forms of political participation.

Critical thinking, the hallmark of Drury's liberal arts education, prods students to seek further, get below the claims of a particular interest, and think deeply about consequences. A liberal arts education engages a willingness to think about questions and issues. For example, are Americans simply so satisfied with government that they choose not to take part in political activity? (My guess is the answer is no.) Is the dramatic increase in so-called "e-participation" such as Facebook, Twitter, and the blogosphere taking the place of more "conventional un-conventional" forms of activism?

The perspectives that are drawn out in classroom discussions rarely provide definitive answers but instill a more fundamental democratic trait—a willingness to question. In this presidential election year, activism of all sorts will again be in full throttle. The ability to sort out fact from conjecture and even falsehood requires the types of skills that we try to cultivate in Drury students.

And they respond.