For Students, Obama's Victory Offers Lesson in Civics
For students in two Washington-area school districts, the election of the nation’s first black president provided a chance to live through history, not just learn it.
Chanell Richardson, a 17-year-old senior at Potomac Senior High School in Dumfries, Va., couldn’t contain herself last night when CNN announced that Mr. Obama would be the next president of the United States.
“I ran outside, in the rain, screaming Obama ’08! Obama ’08!” Ms. Richardson said this morning. “I didn’t go to sleep last night. I was too excited.”
Potomac Senior High is located in Prince William County, in the northern part of Virginia that was instrumental in President-elect Obama’s electoral strategy. Once a strongly conservative area, Prince William is turning blue, in electoral-map terms, choosing not only Mr. Obama but also another Democrat, Mark Warner, to fill a U.S. Senate seat long held by a retiring Republican.
Because Virginia was a major battleground state, both Mr. Obama and his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, crisscrossed the area and spent millions of dollars on campaign advertising aimed at its voters. The Democratic nominee’s last rally on the night before Election Day was held not far from the high school.
Textbook Not Needed
Government teachers at Potomac Senior High said their students have been energized by this election like no other that they have seen.
“I don’t need a textbook this year to teach government,” said Gregory Hayden, who teaches U.S. and Virginia government at the 1,700-student school. “All I need is a newspaper.”
For students nationwide, the historic nature of the 2008 election offers the potential to spark interest in the democratic process, said Michael McDevitt, an associate professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His research on high school and college students outlines the family, community, media, and social influences that shape political views among American youths.
“Research on youth political identity dating back to the 1960s shows that it’s not just parents and families and media, but the actual political era when you go through the adolescent years” that shapes students’ civic engagement, Mr. McDevitt said.
The election of Mr. Obama to the presidency, he added, should influence students’ attitudes about the importance of participating in a democracy and the belief that they can make a difference, whether as Democrats or as Republicans.
Excitement was also in the air the morning of Nov. 5 at Friendly High School in Fort Washington, Md., in Prince George’s County, a majority-black suburb of Washington.
In Susan Kerry Strickland’s Practical Law class, an elective, her juniors and seniors were bubbling over with thoughts about the election.
“I think it’s a pivotal moment, because 40 years ago, Martin Luther King was marching for desegregation, and now we have a person of color who I believe was well qualified to be president,” said senior Brittney Boyd, 17. “Everybody has hope now.”
Asked if they had thought that Mr. Obama had a chance when he started campaigning 21 months ago, about half the students in the class said no. But once the first-term senator from Illinois defeated Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York in the Democratic primaries, they said, they found themselves impressed with his oratory and the specificity of his plans.
“This is the first time children sat down and listened to the debate,” said junior Nicole Jones, 15. “I thought he had no chance because he is black, but then I listened. Kids are now paying attention to voting.”
Mr. Obama’s defeat of Sen. Clinton also represented a defining moment, students said, that spoke about the role of gender.
“It came down to what America didn’t want most,” said 17-year-old senior Monte Kent. In this case, he and others said, it was a woman. They believe that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential nominee, was subjected, like Sen. Clinton, to sexist treatment.
One sentiment was universal in Ms. Strickland’s class: None of the students liked the negative ads seeking to link Mr. Obama to terrorists or attacking his perceived lack of experience.
With the nation still at war and facing an economic crisis, students said, the new president will have his hands full, a fact that should temper unrealistic expectations.
“People are expecting something great. It’s not going to happen overnight,” Ms. Boyd said. “He has a high standard, and there’s a lot to be done. It’s going to take time.”
At Potomac Senior High, the suburban Virginia school, students also analyzed the election.
When government teacher Wanda Higgins asked the students what President-elect Obama’s victory meant to them, most of them promised that this was just the start of their interest in politics.
“We’re taking a step for our generation,” said 18-year-old Amanda Simpson. “We’re cleansing out the old, and we’re getting a new start.”
Tionna Coleman, an 18-year-old senior, had mixed feelings about the undisguised racial pride among some students. She voted for Mr. Obama, and sported a large “victory” pin with a picture of his beaming face.
At the same time, she said, “this election—I was iffy about it.”
“To me, it didn’t matter if he was black or white,” said Ms. Coleman, who is black. “But I feel a lot of people voted for him just because he was black. I wanted him to win, but I feel that people should have voted for him for the right reasons.”
That sentiment started a sharp exchange between Ms. Coleman and 17-year-old Anthony Langaigne.
“If you asked any of the people why they voted for him, half of them wouldn’t know; they just voted because he was black,” Ms. Coleman said.
“But you can say that about white people too!” Mr. Langaigne retorted from across the room.
“I know! But that [isn’t] right,” Ms. Coleman said.
Mr. Langaigne, who also is black, made it to Mr. Obama’s last rally in Virginia, held south of the city of Manassas on the night of Nov. 3. He recorded a snippet of Mr. Obama’s speech on his cellphone and played it for the class.
“Everything he said just seemed legit,” Mr. Langaigne said.
In addition to the history lessons, and the likely discussions the 2008 election will continue to raise about race, democratic ideals, and equal opportunity, Barack Obama’s stature as a role model can be used to motivate and inspire students from traditionally underrepresented groups, some experts say.
“For African-American students, for so long there has not been an individual of President-elect Obama’s stature to be able to look to say, ‘I can be president’ or anything else,” said Kevin O. Cokley, an associate professor of counseling psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.
“Part of what we sort of struggle with in classes with African-American students is being able to point to tangible individuals to aspire to, aside from obligatory heroes of yesteryear.”
Vol. 28, Issue 12, Pages 13-15Published in Print: November 12, 2008, as Election a Living History Lesson