John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

The Perfect Experiential Exercise for Linking Inside and Outside the Classroom Learning

October 15, 2012John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

I don’t know what it is about fall that moves me to reflection and benchmarking prior year to date goings on in my life. I can’t explain this. Just find I am much more prone to do this in the fall. And this particular fall with a presidential election, is an especially potent trigger.

In my public speaking I find I am regularly trying to give good examples of strategies to illustrate the power of linking in-class learning with out-of-class experiences to reinforce those curricular objectives. Oh how I recall a way to do this! So I ask now what better way than in a presidential election season to have your students go see and hear—and then think, discuss, reflect, write about what they learned?

I experienced this for the first time myself as a college student. I was a senior. It was the election of 1964, Goldwater vs. Johnson. I was a student deep in the heart of Appalachia, in southeastern Ohio, a region right now that is being hotly contested by both candidates over the coal issue. Forty-eight years later some things have changed, some have not.

The candidate I heard and the setting were memorable for me. I saw one of  the last “whistle stop” campaign rallies—now an anachronism as the candidates fly in almost anywhere and everywhere. I write this on the day that Governor Romney is flying into Asheville, N.C. which is 35 miles from my home.

But on my special memory day, the rally was held at a railhead in Marietta, Ohio. The candidate was Barry Goldwater. He stood on the rear platform of the caboose. I was struck by how handsome he was, and even more by what he said. There in the heart of Appalachia, in the state that no Republican has ever won the White House without winning that state, Barry Goldwater blasted Social Security and promised that if elected he would abolish it (not quite like Mr. Romney promising to repeal Obamacare). I couldn’t believe it. How could he have been so oblivious to the demographics of the constituents of the environs in which he was speaking? So, wise young man that I was, I immediately told myself there was no way he could win Ohio, let alone the country. And I was right: he was resoundingly defeated, carrying only five southern states with their new Republican party voters.

I recall that I was holding a poster. But for the life of me I cannot recall what my poster said.

As a backdrop for the railhead stop, there was an old hotel with a long ago painted sign on the wall announcing its establishment in 1906, and describing it as “modern.” It was a perfect mantra for the candidate about to be defeated.

I also remember that he promised very honestly to intervene much more aggressively in Vietnam to stop the Communist menace before it reached our shores! The opposing candidate, Lyndon Johnson, was not forthcoming about the wheels he had already set in motion to deeply engage us in what became the quagmire of Vietnam—a war that led to my being drafted one year after I graduated from college and 18 months after my attending my first presidential rally.

Our students need to know that regardless of which candidate they hear, what is said will affect them. They have skin in the game whether they know it or not. I knew I did at that time, but not nearly as much as it turned out I did.

For me the event was perfectly connected to what I was learning in the curriculum and I have remembered that integration for the next nearly half century.

If you still have the time and the opportunity, urge your students to go hear a candidate—and then to really think, talk, reflect, perhaps write about, what transpired. The outcome of this election will change some things, but not other things. Your students can influence that and will be greatly influenced themselves. I am telling myself very often this election: the outcomes will affect younger citizens much more than me. I have it made and nothing that either of the candidates could do/will do will change that very much. Most young people can’t say that.

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