It is a great privilege to speak to you today. If I’m speaking to the choir, which I might be if you’ve been thinking about leadership and civic responsibility all summer, I don’t mind at all. The choir, after all, is trained to pay close attention to the music director, and committed on the one hand, to being part of a group endeavor, and on the other, obliged to do his or her part to make the sound better. Enough of that analogy. I also feel privileged because you are young and smart and I’m quite sure you clean up some of the messes you’ve inherited from my generation. I’m speaking of an enormous project that never ends and never operates on automatic pilot. I’m beseeching you to develop your leadership skills as a citizen—no matter what other lofty pursuits you will engage in— because the continuation and evolution of our democracy depends on you to do just that. And if you are skeptical about the virtues of democracy, take it with humor—as Winston Churchill noted—democracy is the worst form of government—except for all the rest.
The late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said that the most important job in a democracy is that of the citizen. And Richard Levin, the current president of Yale University, says that a 21st century education requires one essential new skill—that of cross cultural understanding; that students are to be trained not only for successful careers and personal fulfillment but for lives of service; and in our time, the practice of civic virtue is a global as well as a local enterprise.
It is especially important, in my view, for those who are on a leadership track—as you students are—and who have included if not concentrated on the liberal arts, to understand from the perspective of the liberal arts that democracy is essentially a humanistic idea that our founding fathers remarkably translated into a political reality. That is our legacy—and it is, indeed an enviable one.
Another Yale president, the late Bart Giamatti, spoke about the significance of the liberal arts in civic terms—putting it in even more compelling terms than Levin. He said that in order to create and sustain a free society, you had to free your mind—and the way to free your mind is through the liberal arts. We can discuss and even argue that point later, if you wish. Here I need to declare what might appear to be a conflict of interest; I assure you that I am not a Yale recruiter; however I have a son that did his undergraduate work at Yale and a husband who graduated from its law school—so I have more access to what goes on there that I might otherwise have.
What I hope to leave you with—or actually—discuss with you—not leave here for you to accept without due consideration—is that civic responsibility is necessary and not optional in a democracy and that it is more than volunteering and service learning. It is at least as necessary to a democracy as are elections and constitutions. Neither of those work effectively if people to do not understand their role as citizens in a society that is based on government of the people, by the people and for the people. Your role as citizens is one of three pillars on which democracy stands—government, that is the public sector; the market, also known as the for-profit economic sector; and citizens, as individuals and as the organizations they form to do the people’s business and serve the people’s needs—that’s the civic sector.
Government must be informed by and in the hands of its citizens; the market cannot go unregulated—no matter that there is a lot of political rhetoric to the contrary. These three sectors operate in a delicate balance—and when they fall out of balance in any direction, democracy is threatened. The current economic tsunami was in large part caused by the lack of regulation in the financial world. It simply became too powerful. Regulations, rules and laws are necessary tools for us imperfect creatures as we try to live together peacefully, constructively, creatively and compassionately. We cannot rely on our own good will and wisdom alone; they are always in limited supply. The rule of law—law made of, for and by the people—is a brilliant, human-made solution to keeping our worst instincts under control.
In a democracy, people must take ownership of the society—not just one’s own fate, but the fate of the society. That’s why we have taxes; they are not a fine for bad behavior—they are the stuff that public services—from highways to health care—are made of. Paying taxes, in the words of my old colleague, Ben Barber, “are what make us a people. More about that later if you wish.
Let’s speak of rights and responsibilities. In my view, the most precious right a person can have is the right to be responsible for the public good. There are very few people who have enjoyed that right as much as we Americans have, and it is the envy of the world. I believe that it has been the compelling reason for this country’s unprecedented success—and I don’t mean our dominance in the world—that will pass—probably not in my lifetime and probably not in yours—but be assured that it will pass.
I have a civic rather than religious perspective on all of this—some years ago, several scholars tagged it “civil religion”—a faith in and commitment to the public good that has some of the characteristics of religion, but in no way prevents one from having his or her own religion or no religion. But this civic dimension can be found– very simply and eloquently articulated in the Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam. They all say in slightly different words that we should treat others as we would have them treat us. That is, in a way, the very essence—I would call it the DNA of democracy.
I sometimes tell audiences that I don’t care about their family values—I don’t care if you beat your husband or wife. That is a private affair. Well, you know I’m exaggerating, because beating anyone is a public affair—but the point I try to make is that we as citizens of a democracy must be committed to treating people who are different from us with respect and honor. That comes easier for some than it does for others, but it is essential in our world today. It is the standard we must meet.
William Penn was one of the first colonial governors on this continent who recognized that—way before we were a nation—he was the first governor to invite non-English speakers to come to an American colony. He did it for pragmatic reasons as Pennsylvania needed people to settle and work here; still it was noble as he crossed a line that had not been crossed before.
Fast forward to the 21st century. We are being asked to cross lines every day. And we have the revolution in information and communication technologies on our side. They are the products of human creativity and they can be used for better and worse. In your hands I know they will be used for the good of the world. The good of the world—for all its people—is our project. How we embrace civic responsibility –writ large—will determine the future.
I have not told you about my work in Rwanda and Kenya but I’d like to if we have time later. Also, I have brought with me two op ed columns, one is my own which appeared in the Scranton Times a couple of weeks ago—it’s about complacency and empathy, and the other is by a much more distinguished author, the Nobel prize winning economist, Paul Krugman, who gives us some incites, in luminously clear language, about health care around the world. But for now, let’s turn to the readings and your comments and questions.