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Political Hermeneutics as Pedagogy: Service Learning, Political Reflection, and Action
Unformatted Document Text:  Political Hermeneutics as Pedagogy: Service Learning, Political Reflection, and Action Not unlike most of my colleagues, an objective for teaching political theory is to develop characteristics of reflective citizenship among one’s students. Amid the debates surrounding competing notions of citizenship, social capital, and political critique, political theory confronts the practical conditions of our age: profound cynicism about civic and political engagement. Does citizenship matter? Discussions of political participation yield manifold expression of apathy that verges on despair of the significance of the political. Even as one encourages students to consider a critical theory of citizenship, their own experience and observation of the political realm suggests not so much the irrelevance of political theory as much as suspicion of thought itself. This project examines potential avenues for the challenge of teaching the political theory of citizenship against the current political malaise that militates against and dis-empowers our students and their efforts to imagine any form of authentic political action. The starting point for this inquiry is the janus-faced dilemma of responsibility and apathy. We do not need to dwell on the myriad indicators of a broad societal dis-engagement from the political realm. Our current national political leaders are locked in both deep ideological conflict and surface level partisan gaming which conspire to depress and disconnect the population from an active role in their own governance. Our students then, are not alone in feeling a sense of disenchantment with the political. Many writers are struggling with the sources of the causes of this dynamic in the American political system (Putnam 2000, Macedo et. al. 2005); my goal here is not to overcome those specific dynamics but to consider how their college educational experience might mitigate and even equip them with tools for sifting through the drama that is not politics to grasp some more elemental forms of political engagement, what John Adams called “public happiness” or active citizenship. Our current generation of students indicates some provocative challenges regarding the dilemma of responsibility and apathy. On the one hand, data from a variety of sources, especially NSSE, suggest a greater willingness among students for community service and volunteerism (Bennett and Bennett 2001). There is even some evidence suggesting that this generation is actually participating in more forms of service, although there is some debate about the depth and longevity of their activities, especially before entering college. On the other hand, consistent with previous cohorts of students, this generation is not any more likely to vote or participate in explicitly political forms of engagement (Mann 1999). While my research is extremely preliminary, I have not found much evidence of any specific political commitments on the part of the cohort regarding specific issue, other than perhaps, some general environmental concerns. Even with a war to endorse or to protest, skyrocketing college costs to denounce, a health care crisis that is giving anxiety to most American families, or a whole variety of issues that could agitate the political passions of young minds, there only seems to be substantial silence. Still, many students come to college with résumés full of evidence of activities in local school groups, churches, community groups, etc. College essays are heaping with claims to help the poor, save the Amazon, and generally improve some aspect of the human condition for others. What is the nature of this disconnect? Russell Dalton’s very recent research suggests that this disconnect may reflect in fact two competing conceptions of citizenship: duty-based citizenship and engaged citizenship (2008, 5). Part of Dalton’s analysis is that we may be McKinlay 2

Authors: McKinlay, Patrick.
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Political Hermeneutics as Pedagogy: Service Learning, Political Reflection, and Action
Not unlike most of my colleagues, an objective for teaching political theory is to develop
characteristics of reflective citizenship among one’s students. Amid the debates surrounding
competing notions of citizenship, social capital, and political critique, political theory confronts
the practical conditions of our age: profound cynicism about civic and political engagement.
Does citizenship matter? Discussions of political participation yield manifold expression of
apathy that verges on despair of the significance of the political. Even as one encourages
students to consider a critical theory of citizenship, their own experience and observation of the
political realm suggests not so much the irrelevance of political theory as much as suspicion of
thought itself. This project examines potential avenues for the challenge of teaching the political
theory of citizenship against the current political malaise that militates against and dis-empowers
our students and their efforts to imagine any form of authentic political action.
The starting point for this inquiry is the janus-faced dilemma of responsibility and apathy.
We do not need to dwell on the myriad indicators of a broad societal dis-engagement from the
political realm. Our current national political leaders are locked in both deep ideological conflict
and surface level partisan gaming which conspire to depress and disconnect the population from
an active role in their own governance. Our students then, are not alone in feeling a sense of
disenchantment with the political. Many writers are struggling with the sources of the causes of
this dynamic in the American political system (Putnam 2000, Macedo et. al. 2005); my goal here
is not to overcome those specific dynamics but to consider how their college educational
experience might mitigate and even equip them with tools for sifting through the drama that is
not politics to grasp some more elemental forms of political engagement, what John Adams
called “public happiness” or active citizenship.
Our current generation of students indicates some provocative challenges regarding the
dilemma of responsibility and apathy. On the one hand, data from a variety of sources,
especially NSSE, suggest a greater willingness among students for community service and
volunteerism (Bennett and Bennett 2001). There is even some evidence suggesting that this
generation is actually participating in more forms of service, although there is some debate about
the depth and longevity of their activities, especially before entering college. On the other hand,
consistent with previous cohorts of students, this generation is not any more likely to vote or
participate in explicitly political forms of engagement (Mann 1999). While my research is
extremely preliminary, I have not found much evidence of any specific political commitments on
the part of the cohort regarding specific issue, other than perhaps, some general environmental
concerns. Even with a war to endorse or to protest, skyrocketing college costs to denounce, a
health care crisis that is giving anxiety to most American families, or a whole variety of issues
that could agitate the political passions of young minds, there only seems to be substantial
silence.
Still, many students come to college with résumés full of evidence of activities in local
school groups, churches, community groups, etc. College essays are heaping with claims to help
the poor, save the Amazon, and generally improve some aspect of the human condition for
others. What is the nature of this disconnect? Russell Dalton’s very recent research suggests
that this disconnect may reflect in fact two competing conceptions of citizenship: duty-based
citizenship and engaged citizenship (2008, 5). Part of Dalton’s analysis is that we may be
McKinlay 2


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