As I settled onto my couch to watch the vice presidential debate, I was surprised to find my 10-year-old daughter sitting beside me.
I'm an undecided voter, and the vice presidential debate didn't do much to help me make up my mind. It did, however, remind me how important it is to be a part of the election process, although the candidates didn't remind me -- my daughter did.
At first, I thought she was trying to stay up past her bedtime. She wasn't even positive about which candidate was the vice president. But before I could send her to bed, she started asking questions about the things the candidates were saying. She didn't understand most of it, but if something caught her ear -- the war on terror, for example -- she'd ask me to explain things in a way she could understand.
None of the issues is easy to understand, even for an adult. I know John Kerry is often criticized for being unable to offer simple, concise answers. Try explaining those same issues to a 10-year-old. If nothing else, I better appreciate Kerry's dilemma.
The week prior to the vice presidential debate, I watched the first Bush/Kerry match-up with a group of my students. As a professor of public relations, I encouraged them to analyze the rhetorical tactics of the candidates.
Only a fraction of my students attended, and those who did weren't thrilled to be there, but we had an interesting evening. As we watched, we provided running commentary for each other. "Notice how he phrased this," or "See how he's framing the discussion" or "He's using the 'association' approach we learned about." One student later told me it was interesting to cut through the spin and see what the candidates were talking about and talking around. Another said it made her much more interested in the overall election.
In another class, I asked students to write a paper persuading their peers to register to vote. Nationwide, people their age could wield enormous power at the polls, yet most don't bother to show up. The persuasive writing class was a perfect example: prior to the assignment, only two of the 15 students were registered.
They ended up persuading themselves. After the assignment, they all said they'd either registered or planned to. Their papers cited things like Iraq, the possibility of a draft, college financial aid and the post-graduation job market. "Doing this assignment helped me understand why it's so important to vote," one of them told me. They had discovered the election's relevance.
Young people take flak for not voting, but what do we do to get them involved? Yes, they're old enough to take responsibility for it themselves, but when a young person turns 16, we don't say, "You're old enough to drive. Here are the car keys. Figure it out for yourself." We spend time teaching them.
The same holds true for politics. High school civics classes are great, but just as with driver's education, classroom experience isn't enough. We should all look for ways to get students involved in the political process. As they become more aware of issues that affect them, they'll be more interested in participating.
Meanwhile, some of us remain interested but undecided. But there's time yet. You can bet, when the time comes, I'll show up at the polls to cast a vote. And I'll take my daughter with me.