Political know-how deficit

Jeffrey Simpson (Kehinde Akinsanya/AQ)
Jeffrey Simpson (Kehinde Akinsanya/AQ)

For the few who may not be aware of what happened at the Jeffrey Simpson guest lecture in the Brian Mulroney Hall last Thursday, I’ll quickly recap.

Much of the gist of Simpson’s lecture was that young people under 30 don’t vote and don’t involve themselves in the political process. Simpson basically invited the audience, made up largely of that under 30 group, to explain why.

A third year journalism student raised her hand to respond.

In her opinion, she told Simpson and the crowd, young people don’t vote or involve themselves politically, not because they don’t care, but because it’s complicated and many don’t understand it.

When Simpson pressed her about what it is that she didn’t understand, the student said that it wasn’t just the issues young people don’t get, but also the Canadian system itself.

At that point, a voice from the audience yelled out, “Read a book, for God’s sake!”

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I have to say I was not personally at the lecture, and that when I heard that a STU professor actually heckled a student who had voluntarily engaged herself in the political conversation, I must admit I was madder than a wet hen.

Not very journalistically objective of me, I know. But I have since settled down, mostly because I went to speak to the professor involved directly.

In his office, the day after the lecture, he readily admitted to what I heard had happened and he did seem genuinely sorry for his “uncharacteristic, inappropriate outburst.”

He wanted to start our conversation with an apology for both the student and the assembly and has since contacted the student directly to apologize.

He also said that, while he himself can’t really understand why he did such a thing, he is and was feeling frustrated about the fact that young people are not taking individual responsibility to inform themselves politically.

The student involved, who accepted the professor’s apology and preferred that no names be published, said she had wanted to further explain that, in her opinion, Googled instructions on how our parliamentary democracy operates just doesn’t cut it. After all, she said, you can read about calculus, but it’s probably difficult to teach it to yourself.

I agree completely. Our Canadian system is complicated and, unlike the Americans, much of our constitution is in the form of “conventions” meaning it is not written down.

The point is, if the lack of political awareness is such a significant deficit among young people in our country, then it would make perfect sense to me to at least provide the foundational basics of the subject, same as we try to do in any other important areas.

Perhaps, as the student also suggested, post-secondary young people might feel more empowered to participate if they were more confident about their fundamental political knowledge.

Further, this is not just about “today’s” young people.

I know for a fact that when I was 20ish I didn’t know anything more about politics than the average 20ish person does today. And, worse, most people I know who are my own age now are not any more informed politically than the 20ish-year-olds who attended Simpson’s lecture, although most vote anyway.

I don’t mean to infer that I don’t think this is a problem, because I do. All I am saying is that there is blame enough for everyone when it comes to the growing political apathy in this country – the politicians themselves, journalists and the media, the educational system, and yes, individual citizens.

We all have to try harder.

But, with regards to what happened at the Simpson lecture, well, after everything is said and done, I think we might be able to categorize it as a success.

Simpson lectured, questions and comments were made, passions flared, the whole thing was talked about for days afterward and somewhere lurking in the middle of all that rhetoric were nuggets of truth on both sides.

Now, I’d say that’s good old fashioned politics.


Please see related article here.


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