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Rhodes Scholars discuss solutions to national problems

The past few months have been a time of reunions, my 50th from Cape Elizabeth High School in August and the 46th of my Rhodes Scholar class this past weekend in Colorado Springs.

As reunions go, my high school 50th was a traditional get-together. We talked about the old days and shared memories of favorite teachers and embarrassing moments.

Our Rhodes class reunion in the Rockies had some of these elements, to be sure, but such is the power of the Rhodes legacy that we all feel compelled at such gatherings to discourse on the issues of the world and what we are doing about them.

We are mostly lawyers and academics, although we have a sprinkling of businessmen and one former senator. These days several of our group are retired, although all of us remain engaged in reasonably demanding activities.

It is always a bit surprising to me how seriously we take the mandate of the scholarship's founder, Cecil Rhodes, that scholars should not be "mere bookworms" but should be actively involved in "fighting the world's fight."

Back in the mid-'60s, we shared a unique postgraduate experience at Oxford University. The nagging concern that follows many of us over all these subsequent years is that somehow the Rhodes Selection Committee must have made a mistake in our particular selection. What if being selected a Rhodes Scholar in our early 20s ends up representing the pinnacle of our achievement rather than the beginning of a worthy career?

You would not discern this at our gatherings, of course. There, we are at pains to express informed opinion on the issues of the day and to place our current attempts at keeping afloat professionally in the most sanguine light. Or so it seems to me.

One of the most encouraging aspects of our gathering last weekend was that the trust and friendships that have developed over these 46 years allow us to be more authentic -- to show vulnerability and admit what we don't know or are unsure about.

Not that we go overboard on this approach. There is still plenty of strongly voiced opinion. Fortunately, there also is plenty of wisdom and insight.

So on Saturday afternoon, after ascending Pike's Peak on the Cog Railway, we tackled the big issue: Is our "American system" coming apart? Has the country somehow lost the formula for generating broad and deep opportunity for those willing to work for it?

And has our political system become so polarized and dysfunctional that it is impossible to do what is right -- even when most of us see clearly what needs to be done?

We did not, in our two-hour discussion, solve the problem. We did agree that the current state of the nation was troubling, and that the highly partisan, simplistic rhetoric of both parties was deeply disturbing.

Moreover, that finding a way out of this mess was likely to require structural changes to the way we govern and the way we think about our economic model. We also agreed that "dialing down" the rhetoric is important, yet our national media is built around fueling even more heated debate.

While several of us had differing views on how these problems might be addressed, the two most prevalent points of view were those who thought we could address these problems by persevering -- just as we had in the past.

This group tended toward continuing to push the political process toward the "middle ground" -- that is, with the deficit, for example, a Simpson-Bowles Commission-type solution. They believe that the American political process has often been partisan and difficult but that, in the end, more reasoned approaches prevail.

Others of us believe that, at least in regard to the political process, more fundamental changes will be necessary to get at the root causes of paralyzing uber-partisanship.

These changes would likely involve formidably difficult changes, such as a constitutional amendment to allow us to take much of the money out of the election process.

As I said, we did not resolve these problems, but we gained a clearer definition of both the problems and the range of solutions, large and small, that would mitigate them.

Who knows where this dialogue will go? Nonetheless, there was energy in that Saturday session that I hope we will be able to build on.

We are a group of Americans concerned about the country's future. Perhaps our time at Oxford will turn out to represent more than a long decline from postgraduate hubris.