Before it recedes from memory under a continuing cascade of daily “breaking news’’ from the White House, let’s return to President Trump’s campaign-rally-style speech at the National Scout Jamboree. At our house, we paid close attention because our grandson Alexander was among the Boy Scouts gathered in southeast West Virginia.
Chief Scout Executive Michael Surbaugh, in a response posted online, regretfully observed that the president’s remarks had “overshadowed’’ the scouts’ 10-day adventure designed to enhance character and leadership skills. And he issued an apology to parents and former scouts “who were offended by the political rhetoric that was inserted into the jamboree.”
Not only for boy scouts and girl scouts, but also for teachers of students in middle school, high school, college, and universities, it is important, I think, to reflect on both the president’s speech and the scout leader’s response. I say this as someone preparing to teach a course at UNC-Chapel Hill designed to engage students in deeper debate and deliberation on the condition, strengths and weaknesses, of American politics.
We should not reject, or be offended by, a president, or any elected official, inserting politics into a speech to teens and young adults. You can not have a democracy without politics. What was troublesome about Trump’s rambling rhetoric was not that it was political, but rather the graceless and tasteless way that he framed public life and government.
“I go to Washington,” said the highest political official in the nation’s capital, “and I see all these politicians, and I see the swamp. And it’s not a good place. In fact, today I said we ought to change it from the word swamp to the word cesspool or, perhaps, to the word sewer. But it’s not good. Not good.”
The transcript of the president’s speech makes clear that he went to the jamboree with talking points designed to affirm Boy Scout values. But he kept veering off in other rhetorical directions — as, for example, in this pair of sentences, “Your values are the same values that have always kept America strong, proud, and free. And by the way, do you see the billions and billions and billions of additional money that we’re putting back into our military?”
On the day before the president’s appearance, a former Boy Scout from France delivered an alternative message. Archbishop Christope Pierre, the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States, presided at a Roman Catholic Mass attended by several thousand scouts.
Boy Scout values, he said, “are the antidote to the selfishness and individualism of our society.” The archbishop, officially known as the papal nuncio, told the scouts that “our own commitment to holiness, to our neighbor, to the environment, and to being honest and decent can be an antidote for our culture and world.”
Of course, it is not the role of a president to deliver a homily; and it is not the job of the archbishop to deliver a lecture on American politics. Still, the contrast suggests the challenge in finding an appropriate balance in teaching that reflects both the messy reality and high ideals of public service.
We live in a continent-wide country that has long produced a roiling, contentious, rough-and-tumble democracy. “Politics ain’t beanbag,” as Peter Finley Dunne’s character Mr. Dooley observed more than a century ago. Today’s politics are defined by hyper-partisanship and assault-your-opponent advertising; of lingering racial and class divides and economic anxieties; the influence of big money, both corporate and individual, in campaign finance and lobbying; and a digital media environment that eases the transmission of coarse and often false spin.
In this atmosphere, studies of the millennial generation, now poised to become the largest age-group of voters, have found that young adults have a strong sense of service. Yet it is expressed more in volunteering for charities or working for nonprofits than in running for public office or seeking government employment. Millennials have lower voter-turnout than their elders.
Scouts belong to the post-millennial generation. The flout-the-norms Trump campaign and presidency come as teens and college students are in their formative stage. The president’s description of national government as a “sewer’’ sends a far different signal than my generation heard from John F. Kennedy.
In our classrooms, as well as in assemblies of scouts, we need full, realistic discussion and exploration of the history and norms of our democracy. Knowing that power can corrupt and oppress, our founders designed checks and balances. Still, it takes power to effect change in budgets and law. Yes, politics often features personal rivalry and sharp conflict over issues. But in a democracy, political opponents should not see each other as enemies. To be sure, news can, and sometimes does, arrive flawed and skewed, but free, independent professional journalism remains essential to a democracy.
Elections matter. And our schools have a special challenge and opportunity at this moment to instill in young people a sense of idealism and the importance of their generation engaging in the grand drama of democracy.