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A Thanksgiving for confronting the enemies of democracy

The question we must answer is: How do we develop better citizens and better leaders?


This is the week of Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday. As some of you will remember from my column last year at this time, Thanksgiving for us is very much a big, multi-generational family gathering, usually at our home in Cumberland.

I closed that column last year by noting many things I was thankful for, in particular, the accident of birth that has made me an American who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. Post-World War II America, at least outside the South, came as close as any time in our history to living up to the ideals of freedom and opportunity on which our country was founded.

Growing up in a small town in Maine, I believed I could be whatever I wanted to be if I studied hard and applied myself.

Still, I remember being intimidated when I first got to the "big time" in the form of plebe year at the Naval Academy. But after a few weeks of classes I began to see that the 4,000 midshipmen from all over the country were mostly just like me.

Somewhat to my surprise, I found I could hold my own and then some. It was an important moment in my life, one that gave me confidence to take advantage of the many opportunities that come from a first-rate education.

So I am most thankful for growing up in that era in America. Now I am worried that the current generation of students will face a much more difficult challenge than I did. For a start, if current trends continue, they will be the first generation of Americans to be less well-educated than the generation who came before them.

This is because only about 75 percent of American students graduate from high school and, of this group, less than two-thirds go on to college and only about 50 percent graduate from college. This means that for every 10 students who start elementary school, fewer than three get a college degree – at a time when the premium for a college education has never been higher.

The 21st century, as many have said, will be dominated by the knowledge economy. Most jobs in America will require education beyond high school.

How could this happen in the country that pioneered universal education and that was the first to offer college education to all regardless of class or income?

The answer, put well by Tom Friedman in an op-ed in the New York Times on Sunday, is that, after all these years, we seem to have lost our ability to solve difficult problems such as education attainment.

Over the years, one of America's great strengths has been our ability to effectively address major problems. Women's suffrage, equal rights, the GI Bill, even Medicare – in these and countless other situations the country has been able to craft legislation to address significant public policy problems, largely successfully.

We seem to have lost this ability to the corrosive effect of money, excessive partisanship, and the unfortunate ability of the Internet to over-amplify extreme voices.

Friedman talks about it as losing the ability of society's leaders to think long term, address problems with effective legislation, and attract capable people into government. This is quite an indictment.

Friedman sees the answer in better citizens and better leaders. The question is: How do we get better citizens and better leaders?

Sunday at church a friend in her 70s who grew up in Czechoslovakia talked about recently becoming a citizen. She had lived here for more than 50 years but finally decided to go through the process. She talked about the difficulty of studying American political process to pass her citizenship exam.

Perhaps all of us need this kind of refresher course on the first principles of American government.

An economist writing a book about this issue a year ago recommended just this sort of exam for anyone who wanted to vote. Moreover, he suggested that all who passed the exam should get two votes – unlikely perhaps in today's egalitarian society, but a thought-provoking idea.

Beyond the refresher course on democracy, we had better start thinking about ways to address the root causes of our inability to tackle difficult issues – that is money, partisanship, and the "Rush Limbaugh" effect.

This Thanksgiving, besides thinking about what you are thankful for, how about some brainstorming on the three "Public Enemy Number Ones" of American democracy – that would be worthy of real post-turkey discussion. Please let me know what you come up with.