Monday, February 21, 2005

The Few

Last Thursday my History 151 class had its second midterm examination. The night before the exam I held online office hours between 10 p.m. and midnight. That is to say, I let it be known that students could contact me between those hours for help, via AOL Instant Messenger in preparing for the exam.

I thought myself very cutting edge to have such a thing as online office hours. Wrong, as usual.

At 1o p.m. I was bombarded by dozens of AIM message requests, all flooding my screen at once. I couldn't reply to one because the appearance of the next blocked me. The whole experiment threatened to be a disaster and I didn't have the foggiest idea how to fix it. Luckily a student--not me, mind you--a student, had the know-how and presence of mind to create a chat room. With the student's assistance, I learned how to steer the other students into the chat rooom, and off we went.

Even this arrangement seemed proved unworkable, though, because I now had between 25 and 30 students in the chatroom, all asking me questions. Fortunately it dawned on me to ask the students to answer each others' questions. I would monitor the traffic, I said, and intervene only if people were stumped or if a wrong bit of information went unchallenged.

This worked astonishingly well. My students, who hitherto had struck me as maddeningly passive, suddenly bloomed before my eyes. Someone would pose a question; another would respond--usually several. Frivolous questions got laughed out of court. Serious ones sometimes received a level of attention that went beyond anything likely to be on the exam and reflected an actual interest in the material for its own sake. Fascinated, I stayed online until 2 a.m. My major contribution was to upload a transcript of the conversation to the course web site from time to time, so that latecomers could look at previous exchanges.

All in all, I was amazed to see how actively engaged my supposedly "passive" students had become. Then it occurred to me to compare the list of people in the chatrooms with those who were actually participating. Although at one point 50 students were in the chatroom, only a fraction of these asked questions, and fewer responded. The success of the chatroom review depended entirely on the engagement of a few students.

It occurred to me that it is ever thus. In just about every aspect of life--churches, intramural sports, business, education, you name it--it's always a relative handful of people who make the whole thing go. The rest of the membership simply takes advantage of what the others have organized.

The same holds true in politics. In most elections, only a minority of eligible people show up to vote. A much smaller number than that is actually reasonably well informed about the candidates, the issues, and the current events and concerns that animate political life. An even smaller number gets involved intensively enough to have some influence over the selection of candidates, to circulate petitions, to hold demonstrations, to even write a letter to a public official.

We live in a republic. As I tell my students in History 151, a republic is a form of government that is held together from below, by the citizens themselves. The founders who chose for this country a republican form of government understood that they were taking a very real chance. Historically, republics did not survive. They still do not. Most of the world's "republics" are so in name only. They are really dictatorships or oligarchies. There is no magic that exempts our republic from the same fate.

All that has to happen is for the few to become . . . too few.

And how far away are we from that?

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