Informed voters make democracy work. On April 4th I received an email message from Claire Iwai, a junior English teacher at Blue Valley Northwest High School in Overland Park, Kansas. She wrote: “One of my students has been studying your work this year, analyzing it for rhetorical strategies and figuring out how your style complements your purpose. For the culminating part of the project, he must contact you via post and/or email.”
That’s like a watching a trailer for a movie you just can’t wait to see! I was hooked. In any communication, it is what is received that is more important than what one writes or says. Does ones message get through to a new generation? Can one of today’s teenagers glean the purpose of my columns? I must confess that as a teenager, I wasn’t reading op-ed columns. I skipped over that part; I wanted the sports section when dad was done.
Neil Postman, in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, wrote, “Americans have a constant need to be entertained, a short attention span, and an inability to look at anything in depth.” For many, they would feel that Mr. Postman was referring to teenagers. After all, too many engaging and curious children come into school as an eager question mark, and by the time they get out of high school they have settled for being a bored period. But not in Ms. Iwai’s class.
Ms. Iwai’s challenging assignment opened Diego to the passion of political dialogue and the freedom of speech that is a vital cornerstone for our republic. It has also launched a continuing dialogue with Diego, a junior in Ms. Iwai’s class.
Now, before you launch into fears of a conservative conspiracy in our schools, Ms. Iwai did not assign a columnist to follow. Each student made their own choice. Some picked sports columnists, others followed liberal columnists.
But Diego’s letter and comments were particularly special to me. First, that a school would even allow students to follow and analyze political columns as a course requirement is impressive. Every generation must awaken to the importance of political principles and the freedoms we must treasure and preserve.
Reading Diego’s comments confirmed that he had captured the purpose for one of my columns on President Reagan: “It does more than bring back an American hero, it inspires within me the American ideal, the idea of powerful actions for what is right, and the importance of leadership for the betterment of others.”
Many students are lucky if they get even a basic knowledge of civics and the American government. They may know who is in the White House, but not a lot about what that president does that is important to their future. Voting is more than a right; at any age, it brings with it the responsibility to be informed before you vote.
Thomas Jefferson said that schools should focus on reading, writing, arithmetic, geometry, and the “outlines” of history and geography in an effort to help every citizen have the information he needs to be successful in his own business; improve, by reading, his morals and faculties; understand his duties to his neighbors and country; and to know his rights. We have sadly watered down our expectations for public education and avoid open political discussion like the plague.
More teachers and parents need to bring our American youth to the importance of constructive, passionate political discourse. Try visiting the Claremont Institute’s website, www.founding.com, and learn more about our country’s founding principles.
Even better; learn from Diego. Try having your family follow a conservative and liberal columnist and discuss the columns as a family. What Ms. Iwai started as a creative assignment ended with students corresponding with columnists about their own views. With what I’ve seen in Diego, we may all very well be reading his columns in the future. If so, he will have one very enthusiastic fan.