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Recently, public service has come to be understood exclusively as the direct assistance of the unfortunate by those who are able to help—an activity most commonly described as “community service.” Such activity, from tutoring immigrant children in English to volunteering at a homeless shelter, is rightly one of the cornerstones of extracurricular involvement on our campus. But to fulfill its potential, this “direct” side of public service must work in tandem with efforts in the realm of politics and public policy. This political dimension of public service is as important as—indeed, intimately connected to—community volunteerism, yet it does not receive adequate attention and energy from young people on college campuses around the country, including our own. The ability of our communities to address any issue or question facing them, from poverty and education to crime and security, is intimately connected to the question of youth engagement with the political process, which today demands consideration not merely as an issue, but as a crisis.
President Kennedy once said that “the future promise of any nation can be directly measured by the present prospects of its youth.” Unfortunately, the present prospects of American youth are showing disturbing signs for the promise of our nation’s political life. A study by the Institute of Politics (IOP) has indicated that only a third of American college students voted in the last election, fewer than a fifth have participated in a political demonstration, fewer than a sixth have been involved in an issue-related organization, and no more than a tenth have participated in a political campaign. In a nation where a lifetime of honorable work in direct service could be wiped out by a single stroke of poor policy from an elected official or legislature, the absence of our generation’s voice from the political process is a hazardous reality for anyone committed to social progress, and a red flag for democracy itself.
The IOP is uniquely positioned to address this crisis of youth engagement. Established by the Kennedy family to “stimulate and nurture a sense of public service” among students, the IOP is blessed with the financial, political, and human resources to make a positive change in this worsening situation. While the IOP has traditionally operated mainly within the Harvard community, the students and staff at the Institute are enthusiastic about the prospect of expanding the scope of our programming in order to make a national impact. For this reason, we have been soliciting the opinions of students and others on how best to use our resources on a national scale. Executed properly, such a move will provide a valuable public service in a broad sense while improving the IOP’s value to students right here at Harvard.
In the past, many have complained that the IOP’s programming is imbalanced, not offering enough for Harvard students while organizing too many speeches and formal events that emphasize what the Crimson editorial board has objected to as “the shallow side of politics.” We are proud of the content and value of our speaker series and events, as well as the other programming we currently offer, ranging from an annual study of college student attitudes to a civics teaching program for local middle schools. But we also constantly seek to broaden our scope, and this new focus was conceived partly as an opportunity to introduce new dimensions to the IOP experience. One of the most important aspects of a national program to improve youth engagement is that it can offer a new and substantive form of involvement to Harvard students who care about any of a number of matters impacted by the political health of the country. An issue affecting all issues, political engagement is ready to be tackled by a talented and energetic group of students seeking to make a difference. By incorporating such an effort into our existing programming, the IOP can build the sense of community, tangible goals and common purpose that some of our local critics have found to be in need of reinforcement.
The IOP is an organic entity that has always sought not only to improve the worlds of youth and public service, but also to better itself. Energetic leadership, combined with the interest and talents of the Harvard community and a willingness to take on new projects, will enable us to carry our message to a broad audience while reinforcing the IOP’s value for getting students involved, and improving its role on the Harvard campus. As students and staff seek and develop ways to bring our purpose to bear on a subtle but urgent national crisis, we are confident that this move will come not at the expense of the Harvard/IOP experience, but rather to its benefit.
Daniel R. Glickman is director of the IOP and former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. Peter P. Buttigieg ’04 is president of the IOP’s Student Advisory Committee. They represent the staff and student leadership of the IOP, respectively.
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