What’s on the Minds of Pennsylvania’s College Students?

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Small classrooms with few undergraduates allow professors to have great conversations with their students. This is one of the best things about working at a teaching university, as opposed to a college where research is the primary driver of faculty achievement. My largest class at Shippensburg University consists of 45 students, which stands in stark contrast to an introductory class at Penn State, crammed with hundreds of students listening to a lecture. All of this is to say: I know my students fairly well and I like them – even the ones who don’t do the readings.

With that in mind, I want to stress the inaccuracy of the old canard that fresh-faced kids walk into a classroom with open minds for professors to fill. In the highly politicized environment of 2023, most students – even those trying to avoid politics – are exposed to something political at some point in their day. Much of the time, it comes from TikTok or Instagram. Or maybe it’s a random conversation a student has with someone about Chick-Fil-A or Nike. Or perhaps a student is close with his or her family, and those bonds help maintain prior beliefs.

However it may have happened, students today tend to come into my classroom with preexisting opinions, even if they usually don’t have the knowledge about our system of government to exercise those opinions logically. It’s not a professor’s job to change anyone’s opinion. It is the job of the professor to make sure that whatever the student believes is supported by facts.

To gauge how informed my students are about current events, every now and then some of us in the Political Science Department will give an open-ended, no-stress, no-penalty news quiz. The answers are always instructive and occasionally hilarious. A recent quiz asked 57 students across upper- and lower-level courses several questions, including “Who is George Santos?” (15% – nine students – answered correctly) and “Name two Republicans running for president in 2024” (happily, 92% could name at least one). What was surprising was that the knowledge ended there, according to my colleague Lonce Bailey, who gave the quiz: “More people listed Kanye West than Nikki Haley,” he said. And in both classes, someone mentioned Vermin Supreme.

Recently, I had a student who was a proud Trump supporter and frequently wore a “Let’s Go Brandon” tee shirt to class. He was a nice kid, and we liked to spar with one another jokingly in front of the class, just to show that these conversations could be had cheerfully. He earned an “A” because he could articulate what he did not like about the Democrats, and he could tie it to the textbook material. This is all I want in a student – it was just a bonus that he was smart and a delight to be around.

The opposite happens, too. A student once said that he hated Jane Fonda with the heat of 1,000 suns, and so I asked him: “Is this because of 80 for Brady?” No, he said, leaning in: “She took the wrong side in the Korean War.”

College students come to school armed with two large arrows in their quivers: their own beliefs and what political philosopher Michael Oakeshott called the “sweet solipsism of youth.” Professors are up against the self-absorption inspired by too much time on social media, a place that rewards absurd hot takes with extra attention. Social media is also where everyone’s opinion is considered equal and where expertise is flattened. The spread of misinformation is so unrelenting in America today partly because many of us have so fully absorbed “alternative truths.”

This is where a college education can be invaluable. College is supposed to introduce students to new ideas. This does not mean that most professors are trying to sway students in an ideological direction, just that most are trying to encourage their students to use their brains. An agile mind, one that can move from thought to analysis to question, is a valuable thing. It also is vital to respect nuance, and to understand that most of the time, life is not black and white. Further, it is imperative that students learn that all people make mistakes, and that in real life pure heroes – and pure villains – are rare.

The world is filled with people trying their best. I know my students are (even the ones who don’t do the readings), and they see me working hard for them as well. Even the world of politics includes people who want the best for our country, though some of them go about it in strange ways.

So, don’t worry about the kids today, no matter how foreign their actions may seem. That’s part of maturation and I can promise you: Most of them are alright.

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