July 24, 2014

Persuasive Speeches and Politics

I’ve been preparing my students for their last big assignment of the semester: a 5 – 7 minute persuasive speech. Of course, selecting topics is the first and most important hurdle because topics affect every aspect of preparation and delivery including research, fact-finding, and audience analysis.

We spend about a week discussing topics in class, and I encourage students to survey their classmates regarding attitudes and beliefs on various topics. We’ve discussed everything from gun control to legalizing marijuana and prostitution, to keeping fine arts and physical education in high school.

During one spirited classroom discussion some of my business majors began asking questions about social security and entitlements. Someone said something about our soaring deficits and debt. And then a student said he didn’t believe we even had a debt, that his family had discussed all the press about the national debt and had concluded all the talk was made up. At this point the classroom exploded with protests and laughter.

I enjoy teaching college students because I learn so much from them and what they have been taught. Last semester a student said Europe was in much better shape than the U.S. in terms of the economy. Really? We’re certainly heading in that direction but fortunately we’re not seeing austerity measures and street riots that have become so common across the pond.

A while back FOX News featured an interview with a professor from Valencia College in Florida in which the professor shared answers his students gave to his question: What is your American Dream and how can the federal government help you achieve it? Answers included free healthcare, free college education, guaranteed jobs with good pay, down payment on a house, etc.

Out of curiosity I asked my students a similar question (What does the government owe you?) and told them not to write their names on the paper. After they turned in their papers, we discussed the question in class as a means to stimulate thought about persuasive speech topics.

About half the class responded the government owed us protection from attack (foreign and domestic), transportation (infrastructure), and truth in governing. I was impressed!

Several students wanted more money and lower taxes from the government … literally. Yes, I know that begs the question of where the government gets money in the first place, but these students apparently believe the government has plenty of money without us having to give it more through taxes.

Some surprising answers: free gas for cars; no taxes; provide more money; give higher tax refund checks; a job (better and more); free college. And, the winner: “What the government owe Me!! More money for college, just more money in general.”

Remember, these students, mostly freshmen and sophomores, will vote for the first time in November.

Scarier than that, consider how these students developed these expectations of government. Their answers reflect not only what they’ve learned in their families, but also what they’ve learned in school about how our government works.

Since the New Deal of the 1930s and through the Great Society and the War on Poverty of the 1960s, we’ve literally taught generations of families who are nearly if not totally dependent on Uncle Sam for their livelihoods that government’s role is to provide a long list of benefits and services (see lists above) including “money.”

If I were among these generations of government-dependent families, I would certainly vote early and often for candidates who offered “free” benefits, services, and money at the expense of “rich folks.” Because, after all, it’s only “fair.”