When we were young, the onset of summer offered us the chance to “turn off” our brains for a while. School drew to a close, the weather warmed up and the blue sky beckoned us to put down our books, grab our shades and head outdoors for some well-earned R&R.

College is no different. Each year it’s easy to see that students, having endured a long Michigan winter, are hungry for some sun.

It’s a cruel irony that the nicest weather of the year comes hand in hand with the busiest time of the semester. The temperature rises? It must be time for midterms. The trees are flowering on South University? Finals are just around the corner.

Let’s face it. When the sun comes out, it’s easy to put work on the backburner. By the time summer break rolls around, we’re ready to take a break — to “turn off” our brains until autumn.

Unfortunately, the arrival of summer doesn’t mean the Earth stops spinning. The lazy haze that settles in with the heat doesn’t keep politicians from saying crazy things, wars from being fought or crimes from being committed.

In the absence of schoolwork, it’s tempting for students to shut down their minds. But I’d like to make the case for keeping them switched on — or, at the very least, on standby.

Here are some topics that will matter the most this summer:

The 2012 presidential election – As Mitt Romney wins the Republican nomination (I see no scenario in which that doesn’t happen) how will President Barack Obama perform in his bid for re-election? Will political discourse become any more civilized?

Iran – Will Israel preemptively attack Iranian nuclear facilities? Will the United States be drawn into another war in the Middle East?

European economic crisis – Will leaders in Europe overcome the continent’s dire economic conditions? A weak European economy is arguably one of the greatest threats to American national security.

Healthcare reform – Will the Supreme Court uphold the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act?

Michigan – Recently, the Democrats in the state legislature sued the GOP for bypassing the constitutionally-mandated two-thirds majority needed in order to give legislation “immediate effect.” The controversy has gained attention in the national media. For a nice rundown of the specifics, see MSNBC host Rachel Maddow’s recent segment on the issue. (Also, don’t tell me that Maddow is the left-wing equivalent of Fox News. She puts her own beliefs on display, certainly, but that doesn’t render her statements inherently false.)

These, among other unforeseen developments, will likely occupy headlines in the coming months. If we switch off our brains, will we be ready to meet the long-term challenges that these issues present?

Our minds can’t operate without rest. Even I, a self-declared news junkie, need a break from the absurdity of politics now and then. But that doesn’t make it acceptable for us to disregard important developments entirely. During the summer months, the opposite holds true: as students, we must keep our capacity for critical thinking close at hand. When the sun comes out, don’t stay inside and keep your eyes glued to the television screen. But when something newsworthy makes waves, don’t let yourself get caught off guard.

Keep tabs on the pulse of politics — keep your brain on standby. When we return to campus in the fall, you’ll be glad you did.

Daniel Chardell can be reached at chardell@umich.edu.

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