One of the most contemporary debates about higher education concerns the value of going to college. Most of the debate focuses on fiscal reasoning and future economic prospects. But talking about college only in these terms would be ignoring other vital advantages that come with education. The panel above shows Calvin making a rather backhanded argument for skipping his homework. His flippant attitude is indicative of a modern problem in political participation, and can be analyzed to show the growing importance of higher education that often extends beyond job concerns.
One phrase Calvin often advocates (with disastrous results), is that “ignorance is bliss.” I hate when people use this expression. It supposes that being aware of your surroundings (always inevitably negative) has the effect of creating an equally negative temperament in a person. This is a low opinion of learning, which I believe most people find to be a rewarding experience. It ignores the fact that education values problem solving, and that perhaps some optimism could be gained from knowing enough to propose a solution to certain problems.
Here, Calvin argues for willful ignorance. Watterson makes a humorous play on the idea that the most decisive people in history have typically been the stupidest. What the reader ultimately gets is an impression of reality. We have come to view almost all disagreeable political decisions as the result of a kind of willful ignorance: congressman X cannot be this dumb. As political participation declines in the United States, higher education finds that it carries more weight in determining whether citizens perform such basic duties as voting.
The political climate of a college campus has the power to shape a person. Higher education has a generally liberalizing effect on students: Professors tend to be progressive, and they may impart their opinions directly or indirectly to students. In a political climate where extremes are starting to carry more power, students need to be more aware of the socializing power of their institutions.
The only exposure many students have to civic education is in their high school government classes. This is not the most ideal time for students to be exposed to the various types of political participation. As colleges become more competitive, high school students practically have to seek out civic duty as necessary extracurriculars, not as experiences in their own right. For example, I earned the Presidential Volunteer Service Award for 100 hours of work at a soup kitchen. I doubt I would have worked that amount of time without college as an incentive.
Civics is a unique topic that is difficult to teach to an unwilling audience. For many, ignorance is indeed bliss, in the sense that they would rather just not be bothered. This mentality needs to be fostered out at the intermediary age of college, when students are not yet past their youthful certitude. Unfortunately, a passing grade on the AP U.S. government exam has the effect of allowing students the option of not taking any political science courses in college.
For all the downsides to an enormous student population, one advantage may be that students are exposed to a wider variety of opportunities concerning their civic lives. Professors need to encourage students to seek these opportunities and also reward earnest participation. But ultimately, the student is responsible for recognizing that the effort is worth their time, and that even an act as simple as voting represents their self-interests.
I mentioned that disaster often ensues when Calvin treats ignorance as bliss. In one comic he refuses to believe his wagon is going off a cliff. Subsequently, he crashes. Whatever political melancholy may come from civic action seems worth the trouble in the long run. I’ve never been the type to brood, and neither should you.
To involve yourself, you can reach ELI FLESCH at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet him @eliflesch.