Paul presides over Room 72Holidays are a time not only for joyful celebration but also for somber reflection and this season is no exception. One of my former students asked recently, “What would you tell us if we held a class today? What would be your holiday message?” This is a great question but given the current political landscape where does one start? I’ll take a stab at it.

This is a good time to consider why you are sitting in this class as ninth graders who are probing the roots of our system of government and how it works. And to better understand it we will also explore several of its most pressing challenges.

You can recall our review of some basic documents like the Magna Charta, Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, the Articles of Confederation, The Federalist Papers, and the U.S. Constitution. You now know why, when we did the two-week simulation of the legislative process called “The Senate Game”, I deliberately assigned liberal students the task of representing conservative states and conservative students were required to wave the legislative banner of a liberal state. It was to practice the best lessons of John Stuart Mill’s essay, On Liberty.  Mill taught us that in a true democracy we should honor and respect those opinions that may differ from our own and we should remember that if we silence them, we may be silencing a kernel of truth as well.  And as the saying goes, “The truth shall make us free”. We learned that we are who we were in that if we are truly free, it is because those who came before us fought and died to underwrite that freedom. We learned that the genius of our Constitution is that it is flexible enough to change and adapt to meet the demands of time and developing technology. We learned through practice and readings that successful democracies depend on the rule of law and mutual respect and that gut, baseless opinions are the real enemies of democracy and a threat to its ultimate survival. We know why our founding fathers were very explicit in their insistence that religion and democracy are a bit like oil and water. Since democracy rests on the ability to compromise and accommodate a wide range of opinions and outlooks, it is on its face incompatible with the dogmas of non-negotiable religious beliefs.

We learned very early how special our democracy is when by widespread agreement and practice, the only signs of a change in leadership which includes the passing of the torch to the future most powerful person on the planet, are lines of ordinary people waiting to peacefully vote. In the history of the globe this has never happened over such a protracted time period as here in the United States of America. It is nothing short of a miracle in the affairs of humankind.

We are learning that when you leave this classroom, you will become the new stewards of this great experiment in democracy and it will be your job to demand that we all adhere to the rule of law and to the broader concepts of comity, inclusion, fair play and kindness.

We learned that no matter what you believe or what your political preferences are, you have the moral and social imperatives to always enlist your better angels in the service of the nation and its people ahead of any political party or special interests in search of power or riches at your and others’ expense.

But, as you are learning with every passing day, the greatest threat to our democracy is ignorance. As Thomas Jefferson said many times but best in a letter to Col. Yancey, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” In our system it is the people who always have the last word and decisions promulgated by our elected officials are, in the end, reflective of the choices of voters of every belief and background. It is essential that the citizenry be informed not by partisan hucksters and wealthy, self-serving interest groups but, rather, by the lessons of history and an educated society with a visceral understanding of a broad base of knowledge that includes economics, science, the social order, the arts and other disciplines all cradled in a mindset of fundamental human decency.

It is our education system that is tasked with the creation and maintenance of those values and to the degree that the current state of our democracy fails to measure up to this standard it reflects a failure of that system to do its job. That tragic shortfall is with us every day when we Americans cannot tell the difference between fact and fiction, truth or illusion. At the end of this year, I will be turning you loose on society and I want to be certain that you will be well-equipped not only to tell the difference between fact and opinion but to be curious enough to always seek truth wherever it takes you when confronted with new intellectual and real-world challenges.

The purpose of education is one aimed primarily at transmitting the culture to future generations. I like to think we are doing that here in Room 72 but our days together are fleeting and limited. Your teacher will someday be just another memory but if you want to pick up the baton and carry on, you can surely do that. Henry Adams once said, “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” It is my enduring wish that you will take the messages you have learned and are yet to learn in this class and pass it on to your children and others so that in the years ahead the little flame ignited in Room 72 will glow forever and in doing so it will warm and enrich the lives of generations of Americans now and in the years to come.

Edwin Arlington Robinson, an American poet (1869-1935) wrote a poem called An Old Story. It goes like this:

STRANGE that I did not know him then,
That friend of mine!
I did not even show him then
One friendly sign;

But cursed him for the ways he had
To make me see
My envy of the praise he had
For praising me.

I would have rid the earth of him
Once, in my pride!…
I never knew the worth of him
Until he died.

That same cautionary message could also be applied to our democracy. It is my hope that you will cherish the lessons learned in Room 72 for the rest of your days and that you will never, ever take for granted the miracle that is this nation. You will embrace your stewardship of our democracy proudly and seriously so that your children and your children’s children will forever be grateful to you for passing on to them the most precious gift of all, “ …the Blessings of Liberty….”

Have a great holiday!

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