As I listened to the precocious, eloquent graduating high school senior at the Community School explore the nature and styles of leadership at home and abroad, the wheels of my memory raced back to a time of delivering lectures about leaders whose idealism drove them to create a better world. Pericles, an ancient Athenian leader whose transformation of Greek Democracy was so sweeping that it spawned the “Periclean Age,” saw conditions that he found unacceptable and proceeded to shape them in accord with his image of the greatest political community the world had ever known.
Dreams that can change a nation or the world, what the insightful student aptly called deep beliefs “that come from the inside out,” form a vision that “real” leaders champion to inspire fellow citizens to scale heights that they never thought achievable. Robert F. Kennedy, whose own vision for a better America was eclipsed by an assassin’s bullet, captured this sentiment: “Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.”
The political challenges confronting the Class of 2014 are daunting. Climate change, an energy crisis, the entrenchment of income inequality, a lack of innovative leadership and a citizenry deficient in civic literacy are front-porch issues that you will be forced to address. As newly-minted voters, you must embrace the opportunity to fully engage your wits, skills and energies to forge a better nation.
You will be tasked with the burden of persuading fellow citizens of the need to acknowledge the importance of facts, evidence and science in formulating laws, policies and programs. You will need to steel your resolve in the face of apathy and cynicism that resist bold, creative solutions to the great challenges of our time. In short, you will need to “dream things that never were and say why not.”
Democracy makes demands upon the citizenry. It pleads for civil dialogue grounded on reasoned discussion and debate. It seeks citizens who will answer the trumpet call to confront societal challenges. It requires leaders whose “beliefs from the inside out” can rally a nation to fight wars against tyrannical foes, confront grave injustices, and steer the cause of creating a better country, based on the principles of legal and political equality.
The maintenance of the health and vitality of the American Democracy requires your dreams, passions and vision and not, as the student reminded his audience, merely another managerial “five-point plan.”
Participation in politics, the Athenians believed, was a duty. Aristotle concluded that “only gods and beasts dwell outside the city.” Everyone who lived within the city—the citizens—bore an obligation to participate in the great debates of their time, for their own welfare was tied to the welfare of the community. The Class of 2014, like their ancient democratic forbears, must embrace the fundamental premise of democracy: everyone can make a difference, and everyone should try.
The moral courage to improve our state, our nation and our world is a rare, but essential quality. You may not bend history, but the individual and collective efforts of your generation can improve the quality of life for all Americans. Do not abandon your idealism, high aspirations and deep convictions, for they are the indispensable tools that you will need to shape a better world.
With courage and conviction, look into your hearts to see what is right, and then do your best to achieve it. Above all, do not be afraid to touch the world with your dreams, your deep beliefs, “from the inside out.”
David Adler is the Cecil D. Andrus professor of public affairs at Boise State University, where he serves as director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy. He serves on the National Advisory Committee for the Center for Civic Literacy. This post was originally published in the Ketchum Keystone on May 23, 2014 and is republished here with the permission of the author.