Student Government: Political Science’s Missing Piece
By: Justin Patrick
In the field of political science, the topic of political education is often approached with a focus on the educator and the state while end-user perspectives of the students themselves are almost completely missing. If academics do not think student government is important enough to write about, what impact does this have on how student government is viewed in society?
Though there was some small progress in theory development in the beginning of the 20th century with John Dewey’s works such as Democracy and Education, a perspective that draws from aspects of Rousseau to present the idea that students should contribute to the formation of their curricular learning and have opportunities to apply what they learn in practical settings, it would not be until Robert Hart’s 1992 essay, Children’s Participation: From Tokenism to Citizenship, was published by UNICEF that such notions would be widely accepted as a guiding document for more practical study and policymaking (Dewey, 1997, Ch. 1-11; Hart, 1992, p. 1-14). However, even these works have limits to legitimizing student participation in education’s decision-making processes, since they do not examine the potential that democratic student organizations such as student governments can impact policy development in education and other aspects of society.
In field research, student government is even more neglected, with most articles consisting of a unique case study or an autoethnographical piece, and all of which tend to be small scale with minimal numbers of research subjects (Golden and Schwartz, 1994, p. 19-30; Densford, 1926, p. 879). In these scant studies, students are portrayed as learners as opposed to policy contributors with the focus being on students’ personal development (Koller and Schurgurensky, 2011, 350-360). While it is important to gauge students’ learning experiences in order to evaluate education systems, solely focusing on this topic ignores students’ capability to be rational political actors and at worst, can portray students as seemingly incapable of tangible political action. Koller and Schurgurensky’s 2011 study of Ontario student trustees reveals that this bias pervades to a contemporary context, as they primarily focus on what the student leaders learned from their experience as opposed to their ability to influence the province’s education policy as elected representatives of over 2 million Ontario elementary and secondary students (355-360).
Despite the near-disregard for student government structures as political institutions, contemporary academics are not entirely to blame, since the bias is woven into the history of education itself. Despite a handful of researchers like Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz and Nigel Moses who have studied the history of student institutions and student cultures, much of the information lies untouched in university archives and dates back centuries (Horowitz, 1988, p. 115-220; Moses, 1995, p. 1-30). Even in cases where students orchestrated significant political change like in Brazil in the 1960s or more recently, the Arab Spring, the role of student governments is reduced to a mention of their names without any information about their organizational structures or internal operations (Langland, 2013, 1-15; Naser-Najjab, 2012, 279-291). Today, literature on student government that is not related to developmental education seems to have gained little ground in terms of both content and prevalence in academic circles, with 21st century student government researchers like Titus Gregory resorting to publishing essays and theses on personal blogs that occasionally crash for months at a time due to a lack of funding (Gregory, 2010, p. 1-30).
While an overview of key literature on student government, or rather the absence of it, provides qualitative evidence to suggest that an expansion of thought in political science is needed, the existence of quantitative data can really drive the point home as to exposing the shortage. To illustrate this, I consulted the Google Books Ngram Viewer, a feature of Google Books that allows searches to be conducted on the frequency of words in all the text sources in the Google Books database with publication dates ranging from 1500 to 2008. I searched for the phrases “student government”, “student politics”, “student council”, “student union”, and “political education” in books published between 1800 and 2008. The results confirmed what I had experienced in my own research.
A key initial observation is that political education has almost consistently surpassed all of the other terms in frequency, yet that was expected. What really startles me is that the frequency of political education has also been decreasing for decades, which makes the crisis of student government literature all the more urgent. By not writing about student government, its legitimacy becomes weaker, making it more difficult for student representatives to contribute to education policy development, or to put it simply, make their voice heard in contemporary society.
So how can this gap in political science research be alleviated? I believe the first step is to expand current research perspectives to include the policy contributions of student governments and treat them like any other democratic institution. This would allow various political theories to be applied in a uniquely student government context. Furthermore, the study of social movements should place extra focus on how students make decisions collectively and should understand that democratic organizations of students exist and have existed for a long time within education systems, laying the kindling for the sparks of student activism that attract researchers’ attention. Thirdly, there need to be more historical works on student government using existing primary sources in order to provide a grounding for political science research and theory. On a final note, it must be understood that students are not only able to enact political change, but are capable of organizing themselves to make collective decisions democratically. Students are not only the future of politics, they are part of the now.
Densford, K. (1926). Student Government in Schools of Nursing. The American Journal of Nursing, no. 11, p. 879.
Dewey, J. (1997). Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. Retrieved from http://www.gutenberg.org.proxy.bib.uottawa.ca/ebooks/852
Golden, D., and Schwartz, H. (1994). Building an Ethical and Effective Relationship with Student Government Leaders. In Melvin C. Terrell and Michael J. Cuyjet (Eds.), Developing Student Government Leadership, (19-30). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Google Ngram Viewer. (n.d.). Retrieved March 3, 2018, from https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=student+union%2Cstudent+government%2Cstudent+politics%2Cstudent+council%2Cpolitical+education&year_start=1800&year_end=2018&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2Cstudent%20union%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cstudent%20government%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cstudent%20politics%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cstudent%20council%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cpolitical%20education%3B%2Cc0
Gregory, T. (2010). Solidarity for Their Own Good: Self-determination and the Canadian Federation of Students. studentunion.ca.
Hart, R. (1992). Children’s Participation: From Tokenism to Citizenship. UNICEF ICDC, 1992. http://www.unicef-irc.org/publications/pdf/childrens_participation.pdf
Horowitz, H. (1988). Campus Life: Undergraduate Cultures from the End of the Eighteenth Century to the Present. New York: University of Chicago Press.
Koller, D., and Schugurensky, D. (2011). Examining the Developmental Impact of Youth Participation in Education Governance: The Case of Student Trustees. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 21(2), 350–360. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1532-7795.2010.00673.x
Langland, V. (2013). Speaking of Flowers: Student Movements and the Making and Remembering of 1968 in Military Brazil. Durham: Duke University Press.
Moses, N. (1995). All that was left: student struggle for mass student aid and the abolition of tuition fees in Ontario, 1946 to 1975. Academia.edu. Retrieved from: https://www.academia.edu/2025011/All_that_was_left_student_struggle_for_mass_student_aid_and_the_abolition_of_tuition_fees_in_Ontario_1946_to_1975
Naser-Najjab, N. (2012). Palestinian youth and the Arab Spring. Learning to think critically: a case study. Contemporary Arab Affairs, 5(2), 279–291. https://doi.org/10.1080/17550912.2012.672000