John A. Tures: Some lifelong civics lessons

January 10, 2014 

Most of you can picture the images in your mind of elected officials visiting kids as a guest speaker for their schools. But most of you may not realize how important those trips can be.

I spent this week taking my students to New Orleans for a class field trip on the historic battle at the end of the War of 1812. In my spare time, I've attended the Southern Political Science Association. As I told my students, these meetings are to politics what comic book conventions are to cartoon fanatics.

At this year's meeting, I got to meet Karen O'Connor, a well-respected professor of political science who has taught for years at American University. In addition, I attended her panel on political parties and elections.

Dr. O'Connor told us about her latest book project in her presentation. She's spent months, even years, surveying and interviewing those who serve as electors for the Electoral College, a position of great distinction and honor in American politics. Only a select few are chosen for this very important task.

This American University political science professor was interested in figuring out what gives these civic-minded individuals their start in getting interested in politics. What were the moments that first captured their attention? She expected answers about traumatic events, like wars, shocking events like the assassination of President Kennedy, or the destruction of the Space Shuttle Challenger, moments where people ask "where were you when this happened?"

But these weren't the answers.

She also expected it might involve the pageantry of politics. She related to the audience her story of watching the 1960 Democratic National Convention, and an older neighbor remarking, "What is a little girl doing watching that sort of business?"

But those election and political party moments weren't the answers, either.

Instead, she gave an answer that surprised many in the audience. She explained how many of the electors cited cases of elected officials coming to their school and visiting with them at a young age. Those were some of the first, and most important, experiences these future leaders had with politics.

It wasn't just a case of standing in front of little kids and giving a stump speech, either. That might go over the heads of some, and be of little interest to the others. Instead, respondents to her survey cited how elected officials explained what their job involved, and their responsibilities to the public. And we're talking about mayors, those on city council, and state representatives, not presidents, senators and governors. They could provide the local attention and context, without the distraction.

I've heard stories about local officials doing this in LaGrange and Columbus, as well as smaller towns in the area. Dr. O'Connor would suggest keeping it up. Those kids may be too young to vote, but they'll soon be old enough receive the torch of important responsibility given to them.

John A. Tures, associate professor of political science at LaGrange College; jtures@lagrange.edu.

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