Political science prof to student: “Read a book for God’s sake!”

Q&A with a professor after his outburst

Shaun Narine

At a recent lecture on democracy at St. Thomas University in Fredericton N.B., Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson asked a room full of journalism and political science students why young people don’t vote. A journalism student raised her hand and said it’s because the political system is complicated and many don’t understand it. Shaun Narine, an associate professor and international relations researcher, blurted out that she should, “Read a book for God’s sake!” Some clapped. Some were angry. Jane Lytvynekno spoke to Narine over the phone from Ottawa.

You told [that student] to “read a book.” Why?

I was as surprised by my outburst as anybody else. I was listening to the student speak and I became increasingly frustrated with the fact that she seemed to be saying that she did not know anything about politics. It wasn’t the arcane facts [she didn't know]. It seemed to be the most basic things like what does it mean to vote? What is Parliament? All those sorts of things. My frustration was very great. I guess I felt that this was the sort of stuff that every responsible citizen should know. … Out of that frustration I ended up doing something which I sincerely regret doing. I apologized to the student. … I sincerely believe academia is a place where we should have rational and reasonable discussion. I don’t believe in heckling people and I don’t believe in embarrassing students and I don’t believe in screaming at people in frustration and in all of those respects I certainly did not live up to my own standards or expectations.

You said you regret your outburst but do you stand behind the message?

Very much so. What I did was wrong for a variety of reasons. On the other hand though, I think the reason for my frustration was valid. I don’t want to justify myself. I genuinely felt like an ass. But I’m not going to pretend that I don’t feel strongly that our students, and Canadians in general, need to know enough about their political system that they can participate in it in a meaningful way.

Why is it important for youth to know how the political system functions?

All around the world there are people literally dying to have some sort of say in how they are governed and yet in Canada it seems so many of us take it for granted to such an extraordinary degree that we don’t know anything about the way we are governed. I very strongly think we get the kind of democracy we deserve. There are all kinds of reasons why democracies don’t work and shouldn’t work. … The system works best having an informed, intelligent and responsible public. … Ultimately if you make foolish decisions or vote for somebody for foolish reasons everyone suffers as a result. … In 2011, [Prime Minister Stephen] Harper was able to convince many Canadians that an opposition effort to form a joint coalition government was somehow a run around democracy and an attempt to do something by stealth or by cheating that they couldn’t do in an election. Of course, in parliamentary democracy, coalition governments are completely ordinary. There’s nothing cheating about it at all. It happens all the time. It’s the way the system is designed. … You see this sort of thing all the time. People don’t understand the system under which they are operating but they’re being asked to make decisions and you can end up with potentially disastrous results.

Why do you think young people are not as interested in politics as older people?

It’s a difficult question to answer. In general young people have often in the past been disinterested in politics. If you look at the 1960s and the 1970s that may have been more an exception to the rule than the rule itself. But I do think that there seems to be a stronger level of apathy today and I’m not entirely certain why. … In the United States there’s a general idea that the government can’t accomplish anything and they [the citizens] had to become more and more reliant and skeptical of government capability. I wonder if some of that malaise has drifted across the border and Canadians have started to feel that the government cannot accomplish much and therefore getting politically involved does not make much sense. … That’s a possibility but I don’t think young people have thought it through that much. They grow up in an environment where they are disengaged. They are not given a reason—or more accurately they didn’t find a reason—to be engaged. … I don’t know the answer but I do know that it’s happening and I know it’s harmful to our democracy.

Why?

Learning to govern yourself and making important decisions is difficult but it’s something we have to do. … We go about our lives and we have our distractions. … People are on Facebook, television, watching movies and are being distracted in a wide variety of ways. It’s not like the time isn’t there, people are just not using it to get informed or better informed. … All of this matters because politics is difficult, governing is difficult and doing it well is difficult. If we don’t have an informed public we have something like the United States going off to war on the basis of a misled public.

How do we fight youth apathy?

I thought that some of the things around the Occupy movement were encouraging. It was young people who were out there in the job market realizing for the first time that they were unemployed or underemployed and their prospects didn’t look very good. … Admittedly this was people being motivated by self interest but I thought that was hopeful because to me it looked like the beginnings of young people recognizing that they needed to be politically engaged in order to make a better future for themselves. I suppose one way they could be less apathetic is if it’s clear to them that they actually can have an impact on events and it’s in their interest to shape those events.

Motivated to “read a book” about politics? Narine recommends visiting the Parliament of Canada website for the basics and then checking out The Ugly American and The Foundation Trilogy.




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Political science prof to student: “Read a book for God’s sake!”

  1. So a student was simply trying to participate in class discussion by providing her opinion on a question and the professor just lashes out at her… what kind of toxic learning environment is that?

    • The toxic environment? The professor was fine in saying that, plus we don’t know the tone. Yes, READ BOOKS and inform yourselves. The sheer laziness of some students baffles me in how they even got into university.

      • it baffles me that someone would be in a journalism or poli-sci class and not know the basics of how our systm works. This stuff IS taught in Canadian High schools. Perhaps the gap can be found, in part, and to use a metaphor “around the family dinner table”. That’s where I first encountered politics, and my children too. Voting has to be modelled, not just taught.

  2. Well, Anonymous’ comment is a tad over the top (just as the professor’s comment was) because with the limited information in the article, we don’t really know what transpired. And it is fairly clueless to say you don’t vote because you don’t understand the system… surrendering your (very precious) right to vote because you can’t be bothered to do a bit of research? Well, whatever…

    But I really wanted to comment on the prof’s recommended reading… especially Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. Great choice.: he obviously knows his stuff.
    :-)

  3. Oh please. Toxic learning environment? Are we talking about grade 3 here? Where are all the self-directed learners and critical thinkers that our universities are suppose to be putting out?
    Yes, sure, we don’t know how it transpired but for someone to snap a curt yet simple response as this prof did, we may surmise that it was a reasonable answer (aside from the tone) to an even simpler poor me/us comment from the student. The student, I pray, understood the answer.
    We can expect more as a society or we can continue to dumb down and coddle this generation’s self esteem, which surprisingly is not lacking in my opinion.

  4. There are two issues here:

    1) Is it indeed the case that students (Profs too for that matter) can benefit from reading more (whether “for God’s sake” or some other lofty or humble cause)?

    2) Is it ever “appropriate” (horribly prissy word, but . . .) for a teacher to take a stern tone?

    I think the answer is yes on both counts, but one would have had to be in the room to judge whether the tone was right in this case. Self-esteem is not the highest good, even (and especially) in the classroom! On the other hand, a good teacher should use his or her anger to a benevolent end, not just vent in personal frustration. Not enough evidence to tell what happened here. The Prof’s apology (and the “toxic environment” voices should remember that he has apologized) sounds subtly coerced to me, as apologies usually are in our Apology Culture. Socrates could be stern, and Plato knew that the best apology is sometimes an Apologia Pro Vita Sua.

  5. Regarding the student’s comment, the question that produced it was not “why don’t YOU vote” but rather “why don’t young people vote?”. The student appeared to be responding generally about people her age, not herself personally – she may in fact understand the system quite well herself. Under the circumstances, the prof’s outburst was harsh although hardly an example of a toxic learning environment. His apology to the student in question and his reflection concerning it after the fact shows class – is this not the kind of thoughtfulness that we want in the classroom/lecture hall? And by the way, an unfortunate number of university students ARE woefully uninformed and poorly read – that’s a societal problem for a different conversation ;-)

    • Nancy. Thank you. I was on my way to pointing this out when I read your post. I agree with all you wrote and would only add I wish the story had said more about what the students who were “angry” actually said to Associate Professor Narine. Forinstance did the journalism student to whom the remark was directed respond “How would MY reading a book make young people more knowledgable about the political system and therefore vote?” I also would not blame the “angry” respondents if they said something along the lines of “Why don’t you read a newspaper? Have you not seen the recent sterling examples of our political system…Harper, Ford, etc? Given these examples, why would young people even care about voting? The answer of course would be to get them out of office…but that would have been part of a discussion that perhaps Simpson was attempting to initiate with his question?

  6. How do we respond to apathy? I think we need to have people examine their quality of life and wonder which aspect of it might be addressed through common cause (government), either to make changes or to protect what we have.
    The process of making changes or assuring continuance is what the process of government is about.
    Government has now become relevant to our everyday experience.
    We may now have found motivation to learn, care and engage.

  7. Mr. Narine chooses well to cite the coalition question – that Harper could get away with lying about the invalidity of coalition government in Canada points to a problem much deeper than apathy and ignorance among young people alone.

    I don’t recall anyone in the media calling him out on that, and Harper’s spin masters chalked up another win due to general ignorance and apathy among Canadians.

    That was no Adscam – apparently it costs Harper nothing to lie – but this government will prove to be the biggest scam ever when all the chips have fallen.

  8. My god these are post-secondary students! They do not need to be coddled! I would have applauded the professor’s outburst. The problem is that today’s youth want all their information in small digestible increments of 144 characters or less and with the simplicity of a 30 second commercial or of a Fox news ‘bite’.

    Life just isn’t that simple. Read a book!

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