July 4, 2010

From The Mouths of Babes? This Is Our Future

Originally posted May 22, 2010

Just last week, I was asked to serve as a judge for a public speaking competition at a local elementary school. (Apparently, someone thought a local author was uniquely qualified for this duty; how could I refuse?) Modern Woodmen, a financial services company based in Rock Island, Illinois, has sponsored this annual contest since 1948.

I arrived an hour early to acclimate myself to the surroundings, and to meet the other judges who had all done this before. The plan: each student would speak for 3-5 minutes, and they would be judged on criteria such as organization, presentation, and the overall effectiveness of their argument.

Our group of 12 fifth-graders was assigned the topic, “If I were president…” What would they do, how would they feel, what character traits would they need to carry out this all-important position?

As could be expected, some were more at ease than others; some shouted, others mumbled, almost all fidgeted. Some buried their faces in their notes, while others memorized every word and made eye contact with just about everyone. Hey, they’re eleven years old! At that age, I’d feel lucky just to make it through without hurling.

Professional speaking skills aside, I was struck by the narrow range of viewpoints expressed by this group. Some examples:

“I would give free healthcare to everyone.”

“I would let all the illegal aliens become citizens.”

“I wouldn’t let banks take away peoples’ houses.”

“It would be cool to live in a big house and fly on Air Force One whenever I want.”

“I would bring all the soldiers home from the wars.”

“I would cut everyone’s taxes. Except the rich people, they would pay more.”

“No one would ever have to declare bankruptcy.”

Oh, so all of these things are actually within the power of our national executive? All he has to do is issue an executive order? If only.

Mind you, of course, these orators were children. I didn’t expect any fancy exposition on capital gains taxes, abortion, or nuclear non-proliferation. They can be forgiven if they don’t read (or can’t grasp) Newsweek or Forbes, or listen to the Rush Limbaugh show.

Still, remarkably, these youngsters were positively monolithic in their ideologies. Uniformly they preached a gospel of entitlement, whereby the government provides all their needs. Personal responsibility? Ha! Free enterprise? Nope. Get a job? Only if you absolutely have to. Public service, hard work, self-denial? Don’t be silly.

How can they possibly speak with such profound conviction about subjects they can barely understand? Perhaps they’ve been influenced by their parents, even if only passively by overhearing conversations among the grownups at dinner parties. Or they hear political rants by their favorite celebrities on talk shows. (Whoopi Goldberg must know what she’s talking about, right?) They’ve only heard one side of the story, and they can’t imagine that another perspective even exists.

Just in the past few weeks, public schools have made the news with their political statements: Five white students were punished for wearing shirts with an American flag design on Cinco de Mayo. Another was sent home for wearing a Rosary. Expressions of patriotism and religion, once universally regarded as virtues, are now met with suspicion and contempt.

But wait: Perhaps we believers should pause a moment before pointing that finger. Isn’t that what we often do? We baptize them before they’re dry from the womb, and often we shelter them from other points of view. And we patriots: we make them recite the Pledge of Allegiance, even if they don’t agree with the message or understand what the words mean.

[Insert solution here.] My eighth-grade English teacher told me that I should end an editorial by offering a solution to a problem. Well, I’m not so sure that I have one. Except that people with opposing views should quietly listen to one another, before they start shooting.

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