January 17, 2012
As is often the case the holiday break offered a chance to read and reflect. Those efforts, combined with a diet of daily campaign headlines, left me pondering anew the nature of a citizen’s role and responsibility in our democratic process. While this is something of long-time interest to me, as a one-time aspiring politician, they continue to resonate as both a parent and teacher. And with our new strategic vision’s emphasis on citizenship, these issues are very relevant to our daily endeavors here at school. They are not easy issues, not for us and not for the many that came before us. Yet those historic efforts offer lessons for our time.
That reality was evident as I read Founding Rivals, a recent work about James Madison, James Monroe and their historic race for a seat in the first Congress in 1789. Beyond the historical narrative, what was most striking about that event, as well as the era as a whole, was the mentality of the times. Regardless of which side of the very contentious issues they were on, Madison and Monroe, like their fellow founders, adopted a broad perspective, one focused on creating a government dedicated to serving the broad-based population, (admittedly there existed at that time very real societal blind spots as to gender and race) while protecting the fundamental freedoms of the people. They realized that individual agendas were secondary to the public good, while also recognizing that compromise was an essential part of making policy, as it had been to the writing of the Constitution itself. Most importantly, they shared a commitment both to civilized public discourse and to the democratic process. As a result, while the political battles were fierce, they were always waged with an eye to the implementation of the singular ideals upon which the still young system was based, a system designed to serve the broad interests of the many, not the narrow concerns of a few. Such a commitment is no less relevant today. Yet too often current campaign efforts seem less a reflection than an abandonment of the core political principles laid out in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
The challenges of the modern era were brought home in an off-hand and unexpected way just last week when I ran into former Congressman Bill Cobey who was visiting the school to discuss an international program being sponsored by a Triangle area independent school on whose Board of Trustees he sits. After exchanging pleasantries, I told him that I had worked on Capitol Hill back in the late 1980s when he was in the House. We had a nice chat reminiscing about the very different political landscape in which we had worked, and we both agreed that the changes that had occurred in the quarter century since our shared time had not been kind to either the political culture or the country. Too, as people with a shared devotion to educating young people, we agreed that it was critical that we work to get students involved in the political process and not allow them to fall victim to the cynicism that can so easily prevail.
All of these things ─ my reading, my chance encounter with Congressman Cobey, the news that we receive on a daily basis ─ serve as reminders of the critical importance of an engaged and committed citizenry. In looking back to the time, 40 years ago, when I was in my own senior year in high school, having spent the previous spring working on Capitol Hill as an intern in a Senate office, I am convinced that as parents, as teachers, or as citizens, we all have a responsibility to instill in our students an understanding of the role and responsibility they have to make this system work. Indeed it is something that we can ─ and must ─ model. I acknowledge that I have beaten this drum before. Writing in the midst of the King holiday weekend, I certainly recognize that responsible citizenship is about more than just political engagement. Indeed, we here at School are very conscious of the many aspects of this concept, especially as we review our program and look for ever greater ways to make it a part of their educational experience. And yet as this presidential election year unfolds, the importance of the political component is obvious. Consequently, I offer my hope that we can all participate in the effort to develop the next generation of citizens who will power and lead the distinctly successful, but ever fragile, experiment that is the American republic.