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Chasing The Future, With A Big Sack Of Debt
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By Allison Rizzolo
Forget everything you heard last week.
That became a theme of Professor Donald Kettl's The Future of American Politics seminar at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, as the class dove into Students Face Up to the Nation's Finances, Public Agenda's nonpartisan curriculum on the impact of the federal budget deficit and the national debt.
"I was surprised by the amount of ignorance," says John O'Malley (above), a U Penn student who, with classmate Will Son, unleashed a video camera on campus to raise awareness about the federal budget deficit and the national debt.
The Students Face Up to the Nation's Finances curriculum, available free of charge courtesy of a grant from the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, includes a nationwide written and multimedia essay contest. In addition to being an interactive component of the program, it's an opportunity for students to have their voices heard while learning about the sea of red ink which is already changing the nation we live in and will change it a lot more unless citizens and policymakers consider potential solutions and decide on a course of action. [Click here for more on the contest and its winners, two of whom are from U Penn.]
Some students who signed up for Kettl's course, a chance for freshmen to experience learning in a format more like that of a senior seminar, thought they were in for a straightforward overview of American politics.
"Boy, were they wrong!" says Aaseesh Polavarapu, a freshman from Tennessee planning a history and Hispanic Studies major, who found the class' study of the federal budget deficit and the national debt to be a real eye-opener.
The semester started out simply enough. The class dedicated time and discussion each week to issues including political institutions, the federal budget, and spending on entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
And then, during the second week of the course, the economy began its plunge.
John O'Malley, a freshman from Philadelphia, recalls: "Dr. Kettl began telling us: 'Everything I told you last week, well, now it's ten times worse.'"
It was a challenging time for the thirteen students in the class. "They walked in not even knowing what a college course was, and found themselves right down in the weeds," says Kettl. "Whatever their expectations were, that's not what they ended up doing."
Appreciating the students' bewilderment, Dr. Kettl sought to bring difficult concepts to life through the Students Face Up curriculum at FacingUp.org and through information from the Concord Coalition, both nonpartisan sources dedicated to raising awareness about fiscal responsibility.
The students also read "Where Does the Money Go? Your Guided Tour to the Federal Budget Crisis," by Public Agenda authors Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson, and found it particularly helpful. The book, says Polavarapu, is "a great resource in outlining the problem in a simple but impactful way." O'Malley says that, for him, the book "made it real."
The University of Pennsylvania was one of the first colleges to try out the Students Face Up to the Nation's Finances curriculum, which helps students understand the reason why the mushrooming fiscal crisis is a problem – but is not without potential solutions.
Reading assignments were followed up by roundtable discussions and problem-solving sessions. As someone who is self-admittedly "not so good with numbers," O'Malley found the discussions and readings hugely valuable. Speculation, he says, shifted to reality as the discussions and readings put theories and ideas about the budget deficit and the national debt with impenetrable numbers and unfamiliar jargon into a framework the students could understand.
Prior to their participation in the Students Face Up to the Nation's Finances curriculum, the students in this political science class were aware that something was amiss with the economy in general, but were unaware of any specifics.
"I had some idea that things weren't going too well simply because I interned at Merrill Lynch during my senior year in high school," says Kelvin Poon of Brooklyn, N.Y., who plans to major in business. "But I didn't know about the financial problems in our health care and Social Security programs."
Another student suggests that part of the problem may have been that prior to the Wall Street meltdown, there was relatively little news coverage of the nation's looming financial problems. "I honestly didn't know much about the budget deficit or national debt at all, mostly because it wasn't ever really talked about!" says Adria Lamba, a pre-med freshman from Doylestown, Pa. " I was interested in the war, stem cell research, the current economy, equal rights, and many other issues... but the fiscal budget crisis somehow never made the headlines, so I didn't know it was even an important issue."
Once the financial crisis started, attention certainly shifted, albeit briefly. "It was big news on campus when [the crisis] happened because all of the business school kids started worrying about their job prospects - especially those already hired by firms that went down. However, after about a week, the news died down on campus," says Polavarapu. "Admittedly, I probably wouldn't have taken the time to follow economic news without the class…[it]… kept me in check with what was happening."
"I turned them loose," says University of Pennsylvania political science professor Don Kettl (above), who was impressed at the results when he asked students to come up with a way to get people on and off campus to start caring and doing something about the nation's looming deficit and debt.
What struck the students most resoundingly is the fact that this problem, which on the surface seemed out-of-reach and far from their own experience, is indeed a problem they must face. Despite unfamiliar terminology and an issue which sounded "boring at face value," says Lamba, it became clear that this is "a problem for the youth. Most people in Congress, or our parents, or the elderly, were the ones worrying about these issues... but we are the ones that are going to have to solve it, or face the consequences."
Polavarapu, acknowledging that like many of his fellow students, he still gets "lost in some of the terminology on the news sometimes," says he now understands a "tremendous amount of what's going on, because of the class. At first, I knew we had a large debt but I never really thought about its implications. I figured we've had a debt for a long time and that we'd pay it off eventually. However, Dr. Kettl introduced our class to the immediacy of the problem. He also was sure to outline how this would affect us, our kids, and our kids' kids."
Once the students knew all the facts, says Poon, "I don't think it [was] possible not to be concerned."
The students were then ready to take action. "I was surprised by the amount of ignorance," said O'Malley, who is pursuing a major in political science and communications. "I realized, 'Wow, this is something I need to get a handle on!' It made me more involved, more determined to do something."
Part of what they realized they needed to do was get others to care about the issue. Their professor concurred, encouraging them to think of ways to get others thinking and talking about the issue, especially those who would be affected most: members of their own generation. To address that aim, Kettl gave the class a fairly broad, open-ended assignment: figure out a way to get people learning, caring, and doing something about the budget deficit and the national debt.
It didn't take long for his students to rise to the challenge.
To get started, the students broke into a few different groups. The largest group created an ad campaign, complete with characters (Kate, Larry, Don, Guo and Carl) that modeled everyday citizens and the problems they personally are facing or are likely to face. Two students in this group, John O'Malley and William Son, decided to make videos highlighting the lack of awareness about the budget deficit. Another group was interested in writing. Still another wanted to create pamphlets to draw attention to the problem.
Ultimately, the class decided that the most effective way to get people's attention was cooperatively, by creating a web site for their message. Pound-It.org, whose name and logo are meant to reflect the need to pound home the issue of the federal budget, is the amalgamation of all the students' work, from blog entries to videos and pamphlets for various age groups that you can download and distribute.
You can call this student (above, at the U Penn cafeteria) a good sport – and more informed about the nation's finances than he was before agreeing to be questioned on camera by Pound-It web site producers who made the rounds on campus asking fellow students to guess the size of the national debt and the deficit. Only one person came even close.
To the students, a web site seemed to be the most obvious way to garner attention. "Teens today aren't going to read a long pamphlet or poster, or necessarily pick up a newspaper, but everyone is online. By making the information simple and accessible, we thought we could reach more people," says Lamba, who says RockTheVote.com – popular with teens throughout Campaign 2008 – was an inspiration for the class' own Pound-It.org.
Polavarapu values the wide audience inherent in the Internet, which "gives people a new ability to share their thoughts to a large audience after a few clicks."
This large audience is itself largely young. According to a 2008 survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 91 percent of individuals between the ages of 18 and 29 use the Internet, compared to 75 percent of the total adult population. This generation, says Kettl, approaches "civic discourse in a more virtual, viral, electronic base. Conversation is not less sophisticated or powerful because of this, just different. We are going to discover, if we are interested in engaging this generation on the big issues… this generation will be rooted in technology."
Many students in the class say they are daily readers of The New York Times, which they receive free on campus. But they also depend on sites such as CNN.com and recognize the growing trend toward online news media. While they see negatives in this migration, namely in the relevance and reliability of sources and a decline in fact-checking, they also detect many positives.
The built-in advantages of the web, says O'Malley, can include the way web sites are used. He believes Internet users tend to take a more active involvement in the news, as they dig to find the information, react more, and may converse about the news in forums or comment areas.
In giving birth to Pound-It, the class wanted to emulate the ease of navigation and user-friendliness of sites such as CNN.com. Polavarapu, who taught himself web design skills starting in middle school, stepped up for duty as Pound-It's designer.
He had a very specific look in mind. "To make a site that was appealing to the young generation," he explains, "I wanted to go in the opposite direction of what a lot of sites are doing. They're very professional, formatted, and verbose. I wanted to create a dark, grungy site that really nailed home what needed to be said. I created a small content area… and tried to give the site an alternative look."
Kettl concurs with the idea that simplicity would appeal to the younger generation: "The class liked the Mac versus PC [television] advertisement. Why? What made that ad more powerful? Why is Google more successful than Yahoo? Because of simplicity - taking a complex message and communicating it simply."
Another U Penn student tries her luck in estimating the size of the debt the nation and its taxpayers (that's you and me) owe, while on camera for "Man on the Street 2," the video which won the judges award for Best Multimedia Essay in the Fall 2008 round of the Students Face Up to the Nation's Finances contest.
In addition making the site visually clean and easy to navigate, the students also sought to provoke an emotional reaction from the website's viewers. If viewers relate to the subject emotionally, the students felt, viewers would also be more likely to remember what they learned and act upon that knowledge.
Son and O'Malley sought to provoke that emotion through video. They hoped that video in general, with its visual and auditory impact, along with their particular subject matter, would create a visceral reaction from their viewers. They hit the campus, video camera in hand, to put together a series of "Man on the Street" videos, in which they approached random students on the University of Pennsylvania campus and asked them questions about the budget crisis and the national debt.
One group of students was asked to provide a figure for how much debt they though the United States had accrued. Often the students were unable to provide an accurate response and expressed astonishment upon receiving the answers. Before uploading the videos, O'Malley showed them to his roommates and friends to gauge their reactions. Whether he faced surprise, anger, offense, or laughter, he was happy to see his videos causing real emotion.
Son and O'Malley also got another payoff they might not have expected: as the 2008 winners of the Best Multimedia Essay chosen by the judges for the Students Face Up to the Nation's Finances contest, they are splitting a $500 cash prize.
Other contributors to Pound-It also found ways to give their message an emotional impact. Poon began writing a weekly paragraph-long blog entry called Outrage of the Week. Poon finds blogging to be a valuable medium as blogs "are shorter and have more personality, two major pros. Most people don't want to read too many long, bland articles."
Poon's column carries a particular emotional punch because, as his classmate, Lamba, notes, "it's just a short paragraph that deals with something you wouldn't otherwise hear about, like earmarks or certain bills or financial mishaps. It's a great way to get sort of the inside scoop on what's going on."
A newbie to blogging, Poon became engrossed in writing Outrage of the Week, working to catch the attention of readers by "pointing out discrepancies or just silly things that shouldn't be happening and then linking them to the debt crisis. They're supposed to be short pieces that make the reader go [Wow!]."
Taking into account the hard work that went into the web site and the accolades it has received, a number of students have decided to keep it going, and have both new content and marketing strategies up their sleeves.
Those plans include working with the Concord Coalition and Concerned Youth of America, another nonpartisan group focused on fiscal responsibility, in distributing pamphlets and stickers on and around campus. They are optimistic that their site will continue to grow and attract visitors, and perhaps even help to effect real change in Washington.
So Pound-It will go forward. It is a remarkable achievement for anyone, not to mention a group of first semester freshmen, says Kettl, who plans more lessons using Students Face Up to the Nation's Finances. "I am pinching myself."
»A new report finds the main problem in getting the public to deal with our fiscal problems isn't opposition to tax increases or spending cuts -- it's their lack of trust in the government to spend their money wisely.