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Friday, July 19, 2024

Academic environments during election cycles

Every four years, the environment at school gets really weird…I wonder why


By JOAQUIN WATERS — jwat@ucdavis.edu 

The first time I recall being vaguely interested in the goings-on of American politics was in 2012. I was nine years old, and all I really understood with any clarity was that former President Obama was being challenged by a rich guy named Mitt Romney. I had a nebulous understanding of the American political system (history was one of my favorite topics in school), but at that age, none of my peers or I really grasped what was going on in Washington, DC. Terms like “Super PAC,” “Republican primary” and “electoral college” might as well have been some other language spoken by news anchors and grown-ups at dinner. That was in another world, one far more complicated than the one most American schoolchildren inhabited.

Four years had passed before the next election cycle, and when you’re a kid, quite a lot changes in four years. At that point, I was thirteen, and as my peers and I now had one foot in the adult world, we were starting to understand the mysterious language of politics. We were expected to, after all. So, as the race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton began to heat up, my school staged a mock election. Certain eighth-graders who volunteered would play the roles of the presidential and vice-presidential candidates (third-party as well as Democrat and Republican) and post little flyers all over the school. On election day (which coincided with the real date), the student body was encouraged to go to the cafeteria and vote for whichever “candidate” we liked the most. We were also encouraged not to necessarily be influenced by what we had seen in the news or by our parents’ political affiliations. 

It was a noble goal — they simultaneously tried to teach us about critical thinking and the electoral process. But, even in an academic setting, it was impossible not to be influenced by the ever-growing cacophony of propaganda we were bombarded with from every possible angle. As election day 2016 grew closer, the environment at school began to change drastically. I remember two kids who walked around campus with “InfoWars” stickers on their backpacks, declaring their allegiance to one of the foremost right-wing conspiracist cults of our time. I remember many more who wore Bernie Sanders stickers well after the candidate in question lost the Democratic primary. In addition to the ever-present memes and video game playthroughs, our YouTube viewing now included sermons from (depending on the viewer) John Oliver or Alex Jones. A few weeks before the election, I had a falling out with a friend who, seemingly overnight, had become a virulent racist who regularly mocked my Latino heritage while insisting he was “joking.” 

Then election day came around, and everything really changed. Half of the student body walked around as if in mourning, the other half with disturbingly genuine victorious grins. One of my friends (like myself, no older than thirteen) greeted me that morning with a grim proclamation: “RIP America.” Beyond that, nobody wanted to talk about any of it, including the staff. That afternoon, an announcement from the principal went out telling us to refrain from bullying on account of political beliefs. That did not happen — on either side — but there were no further announcements on the subject. School, which was allegedly meant to be a non-judgmental place of learning, had transformed into an ideological warzone nearly as potent as the one in Washington itself, yet post-election day, the staff did not seem interested in engaging with that change in the slightest.

Fast forward four years later, and another election cycle was underway. Once again, we held a mock election. Naturally, it was over Zoom (which meant no more printed-out flyers all over campus), but that was far from the only difference. In 2016, there was a naive enthusiasm for our mock election cycle. We were faux-intellectual tweens then, proudly waving our flags because they made us feel more educated, less like children. In 2020, we really were more educated. None of the words drifting from the news channels in our locked-down homes sounded like gibberish anymore. We were painfully aware of the seriousness of the coming election. And nobody wanted to play-act it anymore. Nobody wanted to pretend to be Donald Trump or Joe Biden. And there was a sense that the teachers and staff didn’t particularly want to discuss the election either. We were all of us walking on eggshells. We proceeded with it only out of obligation, but it cast quite a pall over the already-hampered academic environment our teachers were trying to cultivate. 

Now here I am, about to enter my senior year at UC Davis, and another election cycle is underway. Perhaps the most important election in our lifetime is on the horizon. Global fascism is on the rise, conservative lawmakers continue to strip people of their rights and the United States is at an ideological crossroads not seen since the onset of the Civil War. This time, there will be no mock election for us. We’ll cast our votes for real. And even here, in college, I feel that old wariness and hesitation to broach the subject begin to set in. 

In many ways, it’s good that my generation became so politically aware at such a relatively young age. We know where we stand, and we’re willing to fight for it. And I believe that we must not let the unpleasantness of the current political environment further hamper academic spaces. Schools are becoming complacent toward politics, and the more volatile they become, the more complacent they become. The American education system must find a way to positively engage with the subject outside of meaningless mock-election cycles that teach kids nothing and, if anything, actively further the negative attitude toward politics among student bodies. I don’t have an answer for this; I don’t think there is an easy one. But apathy begets apathy, and there should be no place for it in educational environments.


Written by: Joaquin Waters — jwat@ucdavis.edu 


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.


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