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The Roots of Apathy and
How Schools Can Reduce Apathy

By DAVID O. SOLMITZ
(November 4, 2000)

Part One: The Roots of Apathy

Why is apathy, another term for passivity, submissiveness, and even numbness, reaching epidemic proportions when it comes to social, economic, environmental, and political issues? Symptoms include lack of awareness, concern, social responsibility and action, which includes voting. This is particularly apparent for those in the 18 to 24 age group.

Among the factors that cause apathy is our society's orientation toward entertainment. We have become a nation of observers watching with increasing enthusiasm as the sensationalism of the show intensifies. Presidential debates have even become an integral part of the entertainment industry. If there are no fireworks, no Jerry Springer type show, then their ratings fall way down.

How can we take politics seriously, when opposing candidates, like actors, are trained to perform in a certain way in order to appeal to the voters? Each has been prepared by their campaign experts with a bulwark of information. The debaters are trained to use that information to portray themselves in the most compelling manner possible in front of the television cameras. The audience seems to base its judgment on the clichés, slogans, and bloopers. Like an aspiring Hollywood actor or actress, charisma appears to be the final determinant as to who is the victor.

Since television networks depend upon advertisers for profit, the debates must cover a wide range of topics in a relatively short period of time. The television networks realize that the general public is not interested, nor does it have the patience, to listen to thorough, in depth discussion, like those of the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 on slavery. In addition, we are bombarded by short, rapid fire, political ads. These are cleverly created to appeal instantaneously to our emotions, not necessarily to our reasoning. Therefore, it can be deduced that the television medium impacts our apathy.

The phenomenal cost of running a political campaign causes many potential candidates not to run for office, especially in large states and/or for a seat in the nation¹s House or Senate. Even, in central Maine to run for the state legislature a candidate must dole out about $10,000. Though the cost is lower than in other parts of Maine, and much below the national average, it is still high. Because of these high costs, many of us wonder to what extent politicians from either party represent the commercial interests of their big financial supporters? Therefore, we feel powerless. For example, huge corporations control health care, ranging from HMOs to prescription drugs. Many of us are troubled that some mainstream politicians, who rely on these corporations to help finance their campaigns, appear unwilling to come up with alternatives that will create a healthier society. We are troubled, at a time of a heating oil shortage and the high cost of fuel that politicians seem to take no action against the oil companies that are making a huge profit by selling their oil to European countries.

Politics aside, the consumerist inclination of out society is another factor that fosters apathy. We have become addicted to buy numerous products that we imagine make our lives easier and more appealing. For instance, it is even easier to get a "Big Mac," fries, and a shake at the drive through window, than it is to microwave a TV dinner at home. What ever became of taking the healthier and less expensive option of preparing a meal at home from scratch and eating it together with family members? Why should we prepare a meal from scratch, even though it is less expensive then micro-waving an already prepared meal? Why should we give up at least one of our cars, SUV's, or four by four pick-up trucks for train travel since the latter would preserve the environment from ever-wider highways and reduce the amount of fuel? In order to buy and enjoy craved for luxuries, many people work overtime or take on more jobs. Since we have material desires, why should we be bothered if our inability to pay off our credit cards at 18% interest causes marital problems? Why should we be upset that we have little time to spend with our children because both parents are working so bills can be paid? Do the kids really need us? After all, they have boom boxes, TVs, video games, computers, and, as teenagers, many have cars--all for entertainment.

In other words, we allow ourselves to be dominated by consumerism, the entertainment industry, and the television media. Almost instinctively, we desire instantaneous gratification.

We are also controlled by our teachers, supervisors, and bosses. In fact submission is actually the opposite side of the coin of control. It is easier to be passively controlled, than it is to take initiative.

It is also easier to control others than it is to stand up for principles. By controlling others, the enforcer tries to make sure that those under his or her control do not make waves. By attempting to impose compliance to the status quo, a sense of stability and security appears to exist. Whether it is the employer, boss, or supervisor in the business world or the administrator and teacher in the realm of education, the role of the boss is to make sure that his or her employees or students learn not to question but to submit to the guidelines of their superior.

Both in the world of business and education, the bottom line is accountability. This means that each individual is answerable to those above him or her. Certainly accountability can incorporate creativity, i.e. what problems can the employee, as a member of a team, solve to bring greater profitability to the company? So what if the employees' success means downsizing and thus unemployment?

In business and industry, it is much easier for management to command his or her employees to attain specific benchmarks on the way to achieve a certain goal. For school administrators it is equally palatable to demand of his or her teachers that they make sure their students achieve high scores on the Maine Educational Assessment (MEA) given annually to all grade four, eight, and eleven students throughout the State of Maine as part of the process to achieve high school graduation by the end of grade twelve. Not only are students often discouraged and even humiliated if they do poorly on these tests, but teachers' and administrators' jobs are in jeopardy.

Although both businesses and schools use the language of critical thinking, problem solving, effective communication, team building, respect, and social responsibility and involvement, the bottom line remains accountability. It is a difficult and challenging process to encourage and to motivate individuals to take on responsibility, to become socially, culturally, economically, and environmentally conscious.

For those who want to take control, it can be a scary experience to empower others by helping them to develop equal, just and trusting relationships. It is much easier to be the person in authority who, for instance, teaches respect as opposed to the one who models respect. If the employer or teacher disciplines one of those under his or her control for inappropriate behavior, even if he or she might have been in the wrong, it is easy to righteously chastise that person. Yet, it is much more difficult for the individuals to engage in a dialogue in which both sincerely acknowledge their mistakes. As a result of this more difficult process a trusting and better working relationship can develop.

Part Two: How Schools Can Reduce Apathy

To imagine that our society can drastically change course from one of instantaneous gratification through consumerism and entertainment to one in which each of us focuses on the present, on one another, and on the preservation of our environment may seem unrealistic. However, it is possible to begin to move in this direction by making our public schools more egalitarian and democratic. This means that trusting relationships between students, teachers, administrators, and parents need to be built. When people trust each other, they feel safe an absolutely necessary ingredient for success.

Teachers must be allowed and encouraged to keep awake that spirit of wonderment that small children have: always asking questions, seeking answers, and exploring beyond newly discovered horizons. According to the contemporary education reformer, Alfie Kohn, "teachers must first maximize the opportunity for students to make choices, to discover and learn for themselves, and second, creating a caring community in the classroom so that students have the opportunity to do thing together." In this way students develop the means by which to become ethical people, as opposed to people who merely do what they are told. They learn to construct moral meaning.

Ideally, students should learn to reach decisions by consensus. After all, decision making through voting remains a contest among students. There are winners and losers. Naturally, the losers have less commitment to the class than the majority. Therefore, no real sense of community, which includes the ability to appreciate and trust one another, has been accomplished. By helping students to become active participants in their own social and ethical development, the teacher is really putting the Guiding Principles of Maine's Learning Results into practice. Students are learning to discipline themselves rather than be controlled by others. They are developing responsibility, which is the opposite of accountability.

Democratic schools should encourage and empower students to become independent thinkers who are able to listen to and respond with appreciation and understanding to the thoughts and opinions of others. Students need to learn to compile, interpret, understand and use information from a wide variety of sources: books, periodicals, personal interviews, attendance at meetings, and the Internet. However, for this to happen, teachers and administrators must work cooperatively with all elements of the community equally--the middle class, the poor, and the wealthy.

Teachers and administrators gain strength through vulnerability when they are open to suggestions from parents, students, and colleagues. When teachers and students have the opportunity to select their principals and teachers, and their classrooms are conducted democratically, students become healthier, energetic, caring, socially responsible and active participants of the society.

David Solmitz of Waterville taught social studies for 30 years at Madison High School in Madison. He can be reached at 20 Johnson Heights, Waterville, ME 04901, Tel. (207) 872-2279