Political disengagement and student apathy were themes central to discussion at this the annual conference of the American Political Science Association in Chicago this August.
Ryan Lee Teten, assistant professor of political science at Northern Kentucky University, decided to act on this issue by using Jon Stewart’s 2004 bestseller America (The Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction as a textbook for his class. America is a satire of American politics written as a mock high school textbook.
As evidenced by the popularity of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, on Comedy Central, Teten was confident that students would actually read America. He felt it offered a solid introduction to American government and encouraged critical thinking.
In comparing the content of America to standard introductory political science texts, Teten noticed that much of the same material was covered, such as the presidency, Congress and foreign policy.
Teten said that his research on the book indicated that 90 percent of the content was factual and that the remaining 10 percent was satirical.
Some government professors at Cornell, while they do find Stewart’s book humorous, do not consider it a legitimate textbook.
Prof. Elizabeth Sanders, government, said that she would not use the book as an official text.
“It is, however, pretty funny and might, were it sitting on the shelf in the classroom, liven things up for bored students and spark a lively discussion,” she said.
Prof. Theodore Lowi, government, who teaches Introduction to American Government and Politics at Cornell, considers Teten’s use of America to be a bright idea but would not take the same approach. “America was written on the assumption that the reader already possesses a certain level of political knowledge. One must have some familiarity with the workings of American government in order to enjoy and appreciate the perverse humor behind the book.” He said the information in Stewart’s book is too superficial for the book to be an official text.
Students, on the other hand, feel that Teten’s approach is effective.
Chris Duni ’09, said that using America is an excellent way to re-vitalize students’ interest in government and politics.
“As long as students understand that Stewart’s satire is based on truth and learn to critically analyze the satire and also learn the real history, I see no problem,” he said. “My best professors regularly use satire and their own jokes to invigorate lectures. Comedy is a great teaching tool.”
Austin Zwick ’09, agreed that adding comedy would inspire people to learn about our basic government structure. He also noted the importance of students’ exposure to partisan politics. “By taking a stance, students will be forced to think if they agree or disagree upon the opinions presented instead of remaining apathetically neutral,” he said.
Teten pointed out that as Stewart makes fun of politicians and policies across party lines, he allows viewers to form their own opinions.
“Only when students are forced to think and form their own opinions will students become interested in government. Even more so if they can present those opinions in a humorous manner such as America the book does,” said Zwick.
Since he began using the Jon Stewart approach, Teten has noticed that enrollment in his classes and his evaluations have increased.
Teten told Inside Higher Education that he considered it important both to excite some students enough about political science to become majors, but he also wanted to reach other students by teaching them how to think about world events without being intimidated by the news.
“If we can convince people to become informed through unconventional means and get them involved in the political process, then we increase the quality of our democracy,” said Richard Manzo ’09.