As I walked my 6th grader to school one recent morning, I was approached by the parent of one his classmates who was so upset she was sputtering. She said that the school administration was unhappy with the current student council and instead of holding elections this year, they decided to scrap the entire system and replace it with a student government made up of kids selected by the faculty. This meant that the annual campaign season with kids creating colorful signs, buttons and posters as well as their opportunity to prepare and deliver speeches to their schoolmates would be abolished.
I did a little investigating and to my surprise, I discovered that this is becoming a trend in schools. No more elections. Let the student government instead be selected by the teachers. My question is, what about the fundamental principle of the democratic process and the lesson that abolishing it will teach our kids about representative government? That lesson is that democracy is fine unless those in authority are unhappy with the results.
There are two primary rationales being used to justify this trend:
1. Kids are running for office because student government allows them to sometimes get out of class. Many don't satisfactorily do the jobs that they were elected to do.
If elected officers are not doing their jobs, then there should be a process for their removal for dereliction of duty. It should not be grounds for dismantling the entire system. Abolishing the democratic system and going to an appointed government because of the dereliction of duty of some is not the answer. By this logic, after Watergate, the vote should have been taken away from the American people and the next administration handpicked by a group that would not have been governed by it. It's the same principle.
2. It's a popularity contest. Some kids who would be good leaders are afraid to run because they don't think they have a chance.
The argument can be made that politics at the state and national level are popularity contests. Look who is the governor of California. Was Arnold Schwarzenegger elected because he was the most qualified and experienced candidate or because he was a popular entertainment personality? It has been widely agreed that John Kennedy beat Richard Nixon in 1960 in part because he looked better on television than the sickly Nixon who was recovering from surgery. Children need to learn that they get the government that they deserve. If they vote for someone based on looks or laughs or the creativity of their posters, they may well end up with someone who isn't up to the task of representing them. This is a great lesson for them to learn as it will teach them to be more discerning when they are adults in the voting booth and real issues are at stake.
As for the argument that potential leaders are afraid to run because they can't win, how do they know if they don't try? When I was a freshman in high school, I was told that my 350 member white class would never elect an African American as their president. I worked my tail off to earn their trust and make my case and I won. My oldest son was told that his high school's student body would not elect him because of its ethnic make-up. He worked hard to make his case and became the school's first non-Asian Student Body President in twenty years.
As a society, we need to look at the bigger picture. How can history and social studies teachers instruct children on the importance of democracy and their civic responsibility to vote when their own schools disenfranchise them? Many students have mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, and brothers and sisters in Iraq right now allegedly fighting for the right of the Iraqi people to have a democratic government. I find it troubling for the kids to lose that very right in their own country. I have an adverse reaction whenever I hear of voting rights being diminished. My grandmother and great-grandfather literally faced death to vote in Birmingham.
What we are doing here is teaching our children to willfully give up their voices so that 'those who know better' can choose their leaders for them. It's a lesson that will stay with them for a lifetime. Animal Farm here we come.
Fairly or not, a legitimate argument can be made that the new system creates a popularity contest among faculty since they will choose the officers. I believe that's asking for trouble from parents whose children are passed over. Add to that the fact that in every classroom in America you'll find at least one kid who rightly or wrongly believes that his teacher dislikes him. Does anybody really believe that that child will then seek an appointment from that teacher?