Fifty Years of the Same Question:

“What do you think is the major problem in the United States today?”

By Marcus Robyns, NMU Archivist

Dr. Robert Kulisheck was a distinguished professor of political science at NMU from 1969 until his retirement in 2007. He served as head of the Political Science Department (1975-1998) and was the director of the graduate program in public administration (1977- 2001), which he was instrumental in creating. Kulisheck had just completed his doctorate in political science at the University of Iowa when he began teaching at NMU in the fall of 1969. During his long career at NMU, Kulisheck was a strong proponent of experiential education. He developed a successful Congressional internship program. Kulisheck was also very active in Marquette politics, having served as a Marquette city commissioner, mayor pro tem, mayor, and chair of the Presque Isle Park Advisory Committee.  

Dr, Robert KulisheckThe Dr. Robert Kulisheck papers document nearly four decades of teaching, administrative work, and consulting services. The collection comprises five cubic feet of correspondence, class materials, reports, and studies. Kulisheck taught a wide-range of political science courses, including public policy analysis and the politics of United States foreign policy. Of particular interest to historians and social science scholars are the collection’s two cubic feet of “student information forms.” Happily, Kulisheck retained all of the completed forms for his classes. Requesting and gathering basic information about their students is a time-honored professorial function, and in this regard Kulisheck’s form was hardly remarkable. What set his effort apart from his peers’, however, was the form’s final question, “What do you think is the major problem in the United States today?” 

Answers varied widely and evolved over time. In Kulisheck’s lower division classes, students generally offered only a terse word or phrase, such as race relations, Vietnam, and Nixon. Others revealed impatient cynicism with more pejorative clichés like “people are stupid” or “politicians are all corrupt criminals.” Thankfully and not surprisingly, the quality in the scope and content of the answers becomes increasingly more thoughtful, reflective, and better written as students progressed in their college career. By the time students reached Kulisheck’s 400 level seminars, most answers were short essays of several paragraphs in length and addressed all sorts of issues, including environmental protection, government bureaucracy, gender equality, and the mal-distribution of wealth. Taken together, reactions to the question, “What do you think . . .”, shed some light on how NMU students perceived and understood political, social, and economic challenges besetting the nation during the latter decades of the twentieth century.

Despite the school’s remote, peripheral location, NMU students were very much aware and attuned to the world below the bridge. By the end of the 1960s, the NMU community had weathered a number of serious political and social convulsions that reflected or responded to wider national events. Reverberations and the clean-up from these storms would continue to define and shape the campus throughout the ensuing decades.

For a complete history of these events, please see the NMU Archives online exhibit, entitled Student Protests at Northern Michigan University:

The following quotes are selected excerpts of student responses to the question “What do you think . . .” for Kulisheck’s PS 401, Senior Seminar (Winter, 1970). These commentaries are nearly fifty years old and suggest each student’s struggle to intellectually process one of the most trying decades in United States history. Depending upon one’s perspective, these commentaries also spark a strong and dispiriting familiarity to current events. 


What do you think is the major problem in the United States today?


“The present government which is, in reality, a bureaucratic system, impersonal to the real needs of the people, based upon the interests of special power elites such as the military, military-industrial complex, the super-rich and their giant corporations. Government must be redirected to the people and domestic problems, such as racism, pollution, the cities, education, etc.” 

“Democracy isn’t really as neat as it appears to be. Democracy has become the American dilemma. It is too slow and can probably never be had. It seems the minority is always sacrificed by the majority.”

“I feel a major problem is that of apathy . . . This apathy goes beyond simply failing to vote or being concerned with political issues. It extends to every aspect of daily living, from pollution of our air to neglect of the migrant workers.”

“The inability of people to handle the inputs going into their perceptive systems . . . [People] are not adaptive to the revolution in communications systems (live television from all parts of the globe, etc) . . . This seeming speed-up in time, and constant news of cataclysmic events increases tension and anxiety.”

“We must stop spending so much on defense and work on our many problems at home; such as alienation of the young, poor, or black people. In doing this we must create a better understanding between people. Instead of spending on our war machine we must spend on education, pollution control, and our other problems at home.”

“Alienation of the individual and of society. I agree with Albert Camus that man is confronted with an existence with an inevitable doom . . . I feel that this has affected enough individuals so as to create a social problem for society. People are turning to existentialism, hedonism and other alternatives to religion which do not seem to furnish the security of Christianity”

"A large part of the American population has lost faith in the American system. The minority groups feel the government has no concern for their particular problems. The youth are fed up with the slow progress of our government on such topics such as war, air and water pollution, and other factors that are affecting our environment."

“The desire of man the animal to dominate and control other members of his species . . . When man is taught, has learned or realizes that he needs to develop a working relationship to his environment and surrounding individuals, the other problems such as pollution, waste, murder, and disruption of the social order will be greatly decreased.”

“The failure of the ‘establishment’ to incorporate all segments of society into the ‘system.’ American youth, the poor, and black people plus other minorities have the attitude that they do not have a stake in the nation” 

“The political, social, and economic inequities which are prevalent represent the major problems facing America. From these great inequities, comes anger, hatred, violence, suppression, fear, bigotry, and racism. If these inequities cannot be eliminated, then America will succumb to revolution and ruin.”