Day in and day out, Americans are bombarded with quantified data taken from various polling sources or statistical data bases. Social science mavens slice and dice the numbers with various statistical models, a merciful few of which our political science majors study in Research Methods. Media pundits speculate on what it all means if the president’s approval ratings have climbed or fallen six points relative to last month. Activists try to give the data a spin beneficial to their own agendas even as the data they cite frequently do not support the claim made, or are ambiguous or so lacking in context that we cannot say for sure what they mean. Last summer, 50% of Americans asked told pollsters they believed the Constitution should be interpreted by the Supreme Court “as it was originally written” while 46% thought the Court should base its rulings on “what the constitution means in current times,” without the poll offering the possibility that both options might mean the same thing. All of 51% approved of the way the Supreme Court had been handling its business, while only 39% disapproved (10% weren’t sure). I wonder, had the poll asked the same respondents to describe a single decision of the Court during the previous term, what percentage would have been able to do so. Without such information, it is hard to even speculate on what the reported ratio means or if it means anything at all.
Despite the many reasons for caution, we social scientist love data. Call it our catnip. So it is that every semester I ponder over data released by our Student Life Office concerning student activities, hoping to glean some understanding of social trends on campus. The problem lies in discerning what the data mean. Last semester, 672 of our undergraduates made Deans List and the average GPA was 3.11. Sounds good, but are students more capable or engaged in their academics than ever before? Has the quality of teaching increased over previous years? Or are we professors simply getting soft and lazy when it comes to grading? Parking violations were down by 25%. Are students more conscious of the parking rules? Or are there just fewer cars on campus? Or more parking spaces? Or has the security staff just grown tied of writing out all those citations? It is hard to know.
The data that are always arresting to me are those measuring student participation in campus activities. While the data do not measure depth of participation, and in some cases might be counting the same students several times, the raw numbers are impressive. Over 400 M.O.V.E. students performed some 13, 000 hours of community service last semester. The 27 SMC Fire Department members and 28 Rescue Squad members responded to 211 fire calls and 669 rescue calls, some from on campus, but most from surrounding communities. 350 students participated in our Wilderness Program. Nearly 3,000 participations were measured at 30 events sponsored by our GOT SKILLS program promoting respect for human rights and diversity. The Campus Ministry brought about 150 students on its several retreat weekends and trained 30 students as Liturgical Ministers. Our student athletes scored a 99% Academic Success Rate, the highest in the Northeast Ten Conference and second best in Division II nationally. And our campus media outlets and student governing association thrive. I could go on. Okay, I will: 1571 students participated in activities sponsored by our Alcohol and Other Drug Task Force committed to “raising awareness and promoting educational outcomes regarding the pervasive cultural issues associated with the use and abuse of alcohol and other drugs.”
All of this points to an active civic culture on campus, with high commitments to participation in community affairs. Social scientists have for some time been fretting over evidence of a declining national civic culture and a rising disengagement from communal activities. We are less likely to join civic or fraternal organizations. Membership in advocacy groups consists of cutting an annual check. Parties are weakening and voter turnouts are low. Church attendance is down. Americans have withdrawn, it seems, each into his or her own “small circle of friends,” meeting only like-minded people, watching “the daily me” on television or “bowling alone.”
Since Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), we have wondered if a responsive, vibrant and representative democracy can survive in an era of self-absorption. I don’t claim to know the answer, but the question is an important one that we need to address culturally. The young, alas, come under a lot of criticism for their disengagement. True, the young are less likely to vote, or to even be registered to vote. They read fewer newspapers or magazines. They are often jaded about politics. Even so, my own experience, amplified by the Student Life Office data, is that students crave opportunities for meaningful community participation. With all the other demands on their time and energy, the level of student participation on campus never ceases to impress me. I hope Saint Michael’s is not alone in promoting this sort of civic culture among students. Nothing substitutes for rigorous course work, but these extra-curricular activities are also important to the student’s individual development. They may have a political impact as well, if students develop the “habits of the heart” (Tocqueville again) of civic engagement and take participatory habits into their communities after graduation. I lack data on how many former members of the SMC Fire & Rescue are now active in volunteer fire or ambulance squads in their towns, or how many former tutors in after-school programs continue to mentor at-risk young people in their communities. Similarly, I don’t know how many Fine Arts minors continue to paint or play music on weekends, or how many of my former students spend evenings writing poetry or reading history. I can only say that college—at least St. Michael’s College—offers students a valuable opportunity to develop many sides of their personalities, both the public and the private parts. A teacher’s hope is always to be influential. That is why we go into the field. The non-academic staff here shares that desire and has worked to develop a campus culture that can have a lasting and positive impact on the long lives students face after graduation and ultimately on the kinds of communities they help to build. We cannot save the world, but maybe we can make it a little better, one fine SMC grad at a time.