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Hinckley Institute: Combining Politics and Education

Politics is a necessary component of our government, just as education is a necessary component of an informed citizenry. These societal segments feed each other in many ways, both adversarial and cooperative. As such, Kirk Jowers, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah, was the latest presenter for the biannual meetings of Leaders Associates. Along with an overview on America’s political landscape, Jowers addressed the ever important educational issue of civility as well as how schools can teach students to civilly engage in politics.

Leaders Associates is a BYU-Public School Partnership program that brings educational leaders together twice each year to discuss issues related to teacher preparation and public schools. Participants included BYU faculty and administrators, as well as K-12 administrators and teachers from the five districts that comprise the BYU-Public School Partnership. Under Jowers’ direction, this diverse group produced lively debates about politics from multiple perspectives of individuals involved in various aspects of education.

"The Hinckley Institute is dedicated to teaching students respect for practical politics and the principle of citizen involvement in government." Jowers began by recounting the last election and its Republican landslide. He labeled the 63 seat loss in the House, historic. “It was about change,” said Jowers, adding, “All wins are not equal." The results of this [change of power] will continue for 10 years.”

Hinckley Institute

While Jowers showed his love of politics as he recounted the causes and effects of the power shifts of the 2010 elections; however he was more excited about the causes and effects on decades of national politics by the formation of the Hinckley Institute of Politics in 1965 by Robert H. Hinckley. The institute is dedicated to teaching students respect for practical politics and the principle of citizen involvement in government.

The internship program is the heart of the Hinckley Institute, which provides  more than 300 internship opportunities in offices of elected officials, government agencies, non-profit organizations, and think tanks in Utah, Alaska,  and Washington D.C. During just the last five years, the Institute has expanded these internships to  include 35 nations across the globe.

In Jowers opinion, Robert Hinckley’s “genius was in giving internship opportunities to any student” so that talent, not economics, can determine the students who rise to the top. Additionally, Hinckley’s purpose was to produce political participants—regardless of their major. Currently, only 25% of Hinckley interns are political science majors, with the remainder coming from across the programs offered at the University of Utah.

A recent study indicates the Institute is reaching its purpose with 95% of prior interns voting, and 80% watching elections and politics carefully and encouraging others to vote. Additionally, 50% donate to political causes, in contrast to 13% of the general public.

Politics and the Classroom

Jowers concluded his presentation by bringing all participants to the table and opening discussion on the effects of politics in the classroom and schoolyard. Several superintendents discussed parent reactions to President Obama’s two recent speeches to students about their education. Recounting parent protests, Terry Shoemaker, superintendent of Wasatch School District said, “It was an interesting experience. The President encouraging kids to do well in school—that was the message. But the different conversations that happened before skewed that message.”

Rick Nielsen, superintendent of Nebo School District, expressed how he now sees the President’s speech as a microcosm of what is happening in politics. Nielsen recounted that his district learned many lessons: that good decisions are hard to make when political pressure is applied and that political savvy is necessary to have a correct perspective.

Shoemaker agreed with Nielsen, saying “School districts need to be more thoughtful and politically savvy that we have been in the past.”

Leaders Associates will reconvene next September.

14 March 2011