By Marisa Porges
Tuesday, the most contentious presidential election in modern times will come to an end. No matter the outcome of the vote, it will take months until the dust settles and we understand the implications of this highly partisan election season.
But many lessons are already clear - especially for teachers and school administrators, parents of school-aged children, and volunteers at area youth organizations. Those who interact daily with our future local and national leaders.
Today's school students will shape America's politics for decades to come and are best positioned to make certain the hyper-partisanship marring this election does not poison our shared civic future. For that reason, it's time to rethink how we actively engage school-aged girls and boys in our political system. In particular, it's time we rethink how to make schools a safe space for constructive political discussion and to help our students imagine their futures in public service and elected office.
To encourage more collaborative public discourse, we need to allow room for political discussion in secondary schools - something that many school administrators understandably shied away from during this season's controversial election cycle. The goal is not to have our students advance a particular political agenda or actively support any candidate, but rather to have them understand both the issues facing our nation and the way our electoral process - and our government - works. This has become increasingly important as our students are inundated daily with political messages from a highly polarized press and from social media. Their political views are being shaped throughout this process, and it's critical that schools provide a nontoxic space for students to ask questions, engage complicated political matters, and shape their personal civic values.
This includes a renewed focus on civics education in the classroom, an area of study that has fallen away in recent years; it's no surprise that many young adults don't fully grasp electoral politics or understand the checks and balances facing leaders of our executive branch. And rather than shy away from having faculty and staff support political discourse, we should promote venues for student-led debates, speakers series, discussion fora, and the like. Like the brown bag series that my faculty will host on Tuesday, to help our girls better understand the immigration, gun control, and women's rights policies they've seen hotly debated over the past few months. It's clear that our students want to intellectually engage these complex subjects; as educators, we must ensure they can do so at school, with supervision and the chance to hear from all sides.
What's more, we need to actively encourage these young students to consider their own careers in the public sector - to imagine themselves running for office or otherwise playing an active role in local or federal government, no matter what party they support. A generation ago, a child's dream of being president was not uncommon; now, I'm more likely to hear students say they want to be entrepreneurs or businesswomen. That no doubt reflects shifting societal priorities, as well as post-2008 economic realities. But it's also an understandable response to the acrimony that's pervaded this election. Young people have become wary of the idea of pursuing public service careers. Unless we find ways to counter this trend, we risk creating a "lost generation" of youth who could otherwise be our political and civic leaders. Now, more than ever, we need to encourage students and young people to consider public service at all levels, local to national.
This is particularly true for young women. No matter who is elected the next president of the United States, women will remain seriously underrepresented in elected office - in both parties, at local, state, and federal levels. While this election has marked a milestone for women in politics, it's critical that we sustain this progress. That includes encouraging more young women to imagine themselves as future mayors, state senators, and congressional leaders - jobs where the percentage of female politicians still hovers around 20 to 25 percent.
Pundits have called this election the most acrimonious in modern times. Soon, it belongs to history. Educators, though, should already be looking to the future and working on ways to encourage young people to engage more deeply and seriously in politics and public service, in every form and for every party. I, for one, am excited to see my students build the cooperative political climate our country so desperately needs.