Or Give Them Death

Last month Montgomery County, Maryland high school students were let out of school early and offered community service course credit for attending a rally to press for more education funding. There were two small pieces on it in the local weekly paper. Such news stories typically get short shrift. Even the editorial decrying what it called “bribing students” into political involvement seemed to disappear into the pond without a ripple.

And why not? It’s civic education in action. The mission of the public schools is, after all, in part to form better citizens (ask Thomas Jefferson). Kids taking part in politics as a way to get there is great, but it makes for a snoozer of a story, the kind editors pull out when things are slow.

But the hitherto-sleepy front of youth civic engagement now may be about to erupt into a culture war.

We’re in the second week of a spate of news stories in many of the major outlets focusing on what looks like a sinister connection between organized home schooling, a college for home schoolers (Patrick Henry College), and the Religious Right. Pieces have run prominently in the New York Times, the Economist, and The Christian Science Monitor, among others. They raise the concern that home schooling has become a breeding-ground for conservative activism. Many Patrick Henry grads are interning in certain conservative political offices in Washington. And, Generation Joshua, a conservative civic project, seeks to get home-schooled youth to volunteer helping conservative churches get voters to the polls and on conservative campaigns.

In one online forum discussion devoted to the issue, a reader demanded to know how home schooling is “different from the madressa’s [sic] in Pakistan?” Strong stuff — and unfair — but not atypical. Other posts on the “Smirking Chimp” web forum include parallels to the Nazification of Germany and mean-spirited jabs portraying conservatives (not just home-schooled ones) as stupid.

What’s going on here? Why are conservatives volunteering in politics so troublesome? What makes it worth precious column inches, day after day? Why the fascination?

The story is so interesting because it entwines three compelling narratives:

* First, there is the presidential election. Everything remotely connected to politics this year is seen through that lens. With interns in the Bush White House and detractors decrying such students as mere conservative foot soldiers, the story has built-in political conflict.

* Second, there is the rise of the Religious Right. Since the early days of the Christian Coalition, the press has been intrigued with the up-front and disciplined way the Right went about its strategy to become ascendant. The tactics included starting at the grass roots and developing conservative leadership, knowing that such leaders would rise in the ranks and achieve power. The Patrick Henry story is another installment in that ongoing saga.

* Third, there are the home schoolers themselves. Mainstream America does not quite know what to do with them. Without a way to talk about them, journalists easily resort to stereotypes. The New York Times points out that some estimate two thirds of home schoolers are self-identified conservatives, opting out of what they see as a values-bereft society. This makes it easy to see home-schooling as a cult, and as Patrick Henry College as a kind of conservative bunch of Branch Davidians. But, what of the residual one third? Are they a sub-cult? A faction? Can home schooling truly be as monolithic as it is described?

The real question is this: Why does opting out of the public school system — indeed, any school system — trouble us so? Maybe it is because we understand that citizenship requires engagement with the world, requires us to act with others and tolerate different views — and we worry whether those schooled at home truly develop these sensibilities.

And so, those in the mainstream scapegoat and stereotype those on the margin. But it is ironic that Patrick Henry’s mission of political change is, while perhaps unpalatable to some, exactly what we might wish to ask that home-schoolers do. It is a way of engaging.

More troubling, though, is what the home school movement represents. It is a symptom of the breakdown in the relationship between the public and its schools. Families have decided that the institutions on which generations before had relied are just not up to the job and are looking elsewhere. But people see the movement politically and culturally, without recognizing its civic aspects — and it is those aspects that represent the greatest threat to our schools.

Home schoolers’ concerns are real, and must be addressed. The mainstream media does not help by connecting them with partisan politics, and those who support public schools would do well to listen carefully to families who exit the system. Taunting those who have chosen a different way will not invite them back in.

True Leadership

The man over at the edge of the room had the look on his face that people get when they really need to say something. He raised his hand. “We need to remember,” he said, “that as public leaders we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard.” I was in Charlottesville, Virginia with the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at UVA, addressing a leadership group on ethics. Sorensen runs one of the better such programs in the nation, mixing ethics and political leadership in a sustained, integrated way.

The comment crystallized a number of themes that many had brought up that morning. For some, it was a breath of fresh air. We had been talking about the “appearance of impropriety” while we debated a case study, as if the way something looked was more important than whether it was or was not ethical. The man was right, people seemed to say to themselves. We need to think about something deeper than appearance here.

The man indeed had a point. This endemic mistrust underlies many of our civic dysfunctions. The fundamental problem is that, in public life today, the ability to understand, talk about, and act upon ethical obligations has been eviscerated. No longer is there room for “ought” in the public square. But that is precisely what we need.

Thankfully, some people see it that way, too. And not just at the Sorensen Institute. There is an instinct to reclaim the responsibilities of citizenship in a way that makes sense in today’s fragmented world. Talking to people across the country, this instinct can be felt, but is often hidden from view.

People are extending themselves, in small ways and large. When you talk to them, in their voices you hear a desire for themselves and others to live up to the ethical sense they have about what citizens should do and how they should behave. You can see it in the new discussion groups that are forming, with new rules and new members: People who had been shut out are finding political voices. You can see it as others take advantage of network technologies to communicate with public institutions: Just a few years ago, they would not have ventured out of their homes. All of these people are expressing a desire for something deeper than politics as usual, something that feels real.

This is nothing short of a new way of thinking about what we bring to the public square — and what we should do when we get there.

These instincts need nurturing. The people who seek an authentic connection with their responsibilities want to hold themselves to that higher standard. They need inspiration, motivation, guideposts. Where are those things?

Today’s elite discourse is choked, on the one hand, by partisan ranting and, on the other hand, by professional civic theorists who speak incessantly of “process.” In few places is there real discussion of ethics in public life, but in many there are arguments over so-called “values” that are really conflicts over power.

But there are emergent leaders who are beginning to sidestep all that and to speak instead to those with open minds and a desire for something more in public life. People in communities across America, who are more concerned with their neighbors than with the op-ed pages of the Washington Post and who wonder “what is the right thing to do?” instead of considering just the expedient thing.

These emergent leaders work hand in hand with their fellow citizens, at the Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles, at the Common Place Family Learning Center in Peoria, and so many other places. These leaders are looked to as reliable sources of street-level information and as moral exemplars. Some of them have begun to filter into leadership programs such as the one at the Sorensen Institute. But their credibility begins in the community. In the neighborhoods, people don’t wonder, “What would Colin Powell do?” but instead they wonder, “What would Sally down the block do?”

And to these neighbors, true leaders do not shout but instead they whisper. “You can do better,” they whisper. “You should do better.”

How do you answer?