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On Political Engagement

With the upcoming Republican and Democratic Conventions, this year’s presidential race is entering the final lap.

Most analysts say it is too close to call and is likely to come down to the wire. The political battle is expected to be intense, with charges and counter-charges by the campaigns and unprecedented sums of money spent to attract undecided voters.

What does all this mean for a leading liberal arts institution like Washington College? I think it means that we have a special responsibility to do three important things.

Encourage Lively Debate

First, we have a responsibility to encourage people with different political views and ideological perspectives to speak their minds, and provide a space where they can do so with civility. After all, intellectual discussion and lively debate are the lifeblood of any great academic institution. So this fall, Washington College has invited an impressive array of domestic and foreign policy experts from across the political spectrum to share their opinions with our students and faculty.

The lineup includes Matt Bai, the chief political correspondent for the New York Times Magazine, with Richard Ben Cramer, the author of What It Takes: The Way to the White House, widely acclaimed as one of the best books on American electoral politics; Sasha Issenberg, a columnist for Slate and author of the new book The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns; Trevor Potter, the former chairman of the Federal Election Commission; and Sy Hersh, the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who now writes for The New Yorker, with Juan Zarate, the former Deputy National Security Advisor for Combating Terrorism, to debate “Secrecy, the Media and National Security.” All of these events are open to the local community and, of course, all alumni.

Spark Civic Engagement

Second, we have a responsibility to encourage today’s students to become actively engaged – to learn about the issues, to volunteer and work for a candidate, and above all, to vote. No one said it better than Teddy Roosevelt, over a century ago: “The credit belongs to the man…who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

Whatever one’s political persuasion, I think we can all agree that helping determine who will lead our community, state and country these next few years is an eminently worthy cause. The College’s new Mission Statement echoes Roosevelt’s sentiment: “Washington College challenges and inspires emerging citizen leaders to discover lives of purpose and passion.”

Teach Critical Thinking

And third, the role of the Washington College community is not to teach young people what to think, but rather to teach them how to think critically for themselves. This means that there exists an obligation for faculty not to slant the truth, not to color advice and not to advocate for one side or the other when in the classroom. Our collective task is to help our students discover what their own individual purpose and passion might be, and not necessarily replicate our political preferences.

All three of these responsibilities are part of the culture at Washington College, part of what makes this venerable institution so special. I hope our undergraduates will be inspired today as students, and tomorrow as alumni like you, to get involved in their own civic passions, whether that entails political campaigns, local community governance, or nonprofit advocacy work. It is part of the work George Washington blessed when Rev. William Smith started “the College at Chester” in 1782 to educate the nation’s first generation of citizen leaders.