Lead the way, graduates, and get involved

May 11, 2013 

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President Obama got a jump on commencement season when he delivered the address to graduates of the Ohio State University on May 5. And instead of feel-good rhetoric, the president called on students to become involved in the duties of citizenship, and not to buy into the cynical, anti-government sentiment that seems so prevalent in the nation today.

As Triangle universities hold graduation ceremonies this weekend, new graduates, and their parents, would do well to heed his words.

He noted some ROTC graduates would serve the military; others, he said, would go in the Peace Corps or Teach for America. Still others would eschew the temptation of a soft start in the corporate life for a startup company.

All those things, Obama said, were about citizenship.

“And we don’t always talk about this idea much these days, citizenship, let alone celebrate it,” the president said. “Sometimes, we see it as a virtue from another time, a distant past, one that’s slipping from a society that celebrates individual ambition above all else, a society awash in instant technology that empowers us to leverage our skills and talents like never before, but just as easily allows us to retreat from the world.”

A family and nation

That, Obama said, weakens the bonds of the larger American family, the one that forms a nation.

But he noted the bonds are there, no matter, in times of crisis such as the Boston bombings or Newtown or Hurricane Sandy. People at such times help each other, he said. And race and gender and politics don’t matter.

“Unfortunately,” he told the graduates, “you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more that some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems; some of these same voices also are doing their best to gum up the works.

“They’ll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices. Because what they suggest is that our brave and creative and unique experiment in self-rule is somehow just a sham with which we can’t be trusted.”

Echoing some of the sentiments of John F. Kennedy 50 years ago, Obama reminded the graduates that the country has never been about what so many anti-government, self-serving politicians say it’s about, handouts and the like.

“And as citizens,” he said, “we understand that it’s not about what America can do for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but absolutely necessary work of self-government.”

At the multitude of universities in this area, speakers with distinguished careers in business or academia will seek to stir graduates. They’ll try to inspire, to motivate, perhaps to amuse.

But the president’s words, his belief that citizenship means a devotion to fellow citizens and participation in this democracy in an active and at times self-sacrificing way, is a message that needs delivering at a time of monumental division when a mentality of “it’s us versus the government” persists.

Wrong attitude

We see that attitude in North Carolina, where politicians have turned the very public school teachers who helped bring these college graduates to the point they’ve reached this weekend into targets of political opportunism.

Others have made public universities targets themselves, cutting funding at a time of growth. And still others have preached against government assistance for those in need as a conspiracy on the part of government to steal away rights.

This is wrong. Obama noted in his address that Americans have never thought government ought to solve all of their problems. That’s true.

What’s also true is that at times of grave domestic crisis, notably the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Great Recession that began in the latter part of the first decade of this century, government worked to help the nation recover, to help individuals come back and regain their footing. Those individuals still had to do the work. But government was not their enemy.

If young people choose active citizenship over cynicism and keep faith in democracy and each other, the government of which they will be part will indeed remain the hope and help it has been to so many. And they will be leaders who will know how to make it work.

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