I occasionally run across people who seem to have photographic memories of their elementary, middle and high school years. In fact, I live with a woman who can remember which seat she occupied in third grade while I can barely remember being in third grade. While I have plenty of fond memories of my school years, for whatever reason there are many other memories that have faded into the recesses of my mind.
However, sometimes current events occur that remind me of just how impactful my school-age years were. The recently completed mid-term elections was one of those events.
As I watched the political drama unfold (it is still unfolding as I write this, thank you once again, Florida), I was reminded of my experience at Boys State, which I attended after my junior year in high school almost five decades ago. It was held at Ashland College during the summer of 1971, which proves again that some of our most impactful educational experiences occur outside the confines of a school classroom.
Boys State is sponsored by the American Legion (which also sponsors Girls State) and, according to its website, “centers on the structure of city, county and state governments” where students are “exposed to democratic governmental principles.” Both Boys and Girls State were created for students “who exhibit leadership, character, scholarship, loyalty and service,” to gain experience in the political environment. While Boys State didn’t specifically address politics at the national level, it was clear that the same rules applied there as well.
The American Legion is rightfully proud of its program. Boys State was a well organized, professionally run, nonpartisan, incredibly educational experience that demonstrated for all the young men who attended exactly how government works. It was particularly impactful for me, as a young, naive country bumpkin. I had always believed government was comprised of a group of independent-thinking individuals who studied the issues confronting society, created viable solutions, then voted independently on each issue with the interests of the people they represented at the forefront of their minds. You see, growing up in little ol’ Covington, Ohio, with its local government leaders also being our neighbors, that was my only experience with government. It was, as local government still is, serving others in its purest form.
Were my eyes ever opened by my experience at Boys State! But, opening eyes is the greatest value of becoming educated.
It was immediately obvious that I was a political novice who was out of his element in that environment. I watched incredulously as guys eagerly approached other guys or groups of guys, stumping for support for whatever political office they were chasing while promising reciprocal support for whoever supported them. Political agendas were bartered in much the same way, and the loudest and most obnoxious individuals often grabbed control.
I was dumbfounded to see my peers guarantee their support for guys they barely knew and for political platforms they hadn’t even read. Fast forward about 40 years, and it was akin to Nancy Pelosi’s infamous quote about President O’Bama’s Affordable Health Care Act, when she said, “…we have to pass the bill so you can find out what is in it…”
I learned rather quickly that the political process was little more than a power grab by people who were sure their ideas were better than the next guy’s, and certainly better than the people they promised to serve. I also witnessed how the beliefs of a few who somehow ascended to leadership positions quickly became a platform for many. Just like today.
I remember vividly saying to myself within the first hour of the event, “I don’t belong here,” and, “This is going to be a long few days!” Boy, was I right on both counts.
I also remember thinking, “This can’t possibly be how politics work.” After all, we were just a bunch of pimply-faced, dopey teenage boys trying to gain a little knowledge about leadership. The ensuing 48 years have proven to me that it is EXACTLY how politics works, and I am just as turned off by it today as I was as that goofy teenager. The myriad of political ads that ran prior to mid-term elections telling us what politicians have done for us and will do for us was akin to traveling back in time in some God-forsaken time machine.
But, the best thing I learned at Boys State and since is that it is the responsibility of every American citizen to stay engaged in the political process, to continually educate ourselves about what is really going on in the world, and to never blindly trust what we are told by people in power. That is the most important education any of us can receive.
In any event, people who have read my columns sometimes ask me why I don’t run for political office. I’m sure there is an element of “Why don’t you quit complaining and do something about it,” in the question.
Well, there you have it. I have no interest in the political process. In fact, I would be the worst politician ever. More importantly, I’m not convinced that problems can be solved within the current political climate. As Clint Eastwood so famously said many years ago, “A man has to know his limitations.”
Well, I certainly know mine, and I can thank my experience at Boys State and the ensuing 48 years of life for teaching me that.
Tom Dunn is a former superintendent of the Miami County Educational Service Center.