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The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina reinforces in vivid terms the impact of public policy on all of our lives. As students from across the college struggle to cope with the enormity of this tragedy, it is vital that we challenge each other to demand more of our government and more of ourselves. While the majority of college students believe that politics is relevant in their lives, far too few want to engage directly in politics and government.
For the past three decades, with few exceptions, the number of students voting and engaged in the political process has continuously fallen. There have been many reasons given for this decline. Young people feel that government is too bureaucratic and not responsive; they don’t believe politicians speak to their generation; they dislike the negativity and divisiveness that is pervasive in so much of modern political discourse. As Ganesh N. Sitaraman ’04 and Previn Warren ’04 described in their book, “Invisible Citizens,” “Our generation has not experienced government as it can, should and does exist. We face instead a version of politics that is bureaucratic, disengaged, and distasteful . . . .”
This generation of college students has had good reason to question the efficacy of their government. They are coming of age at a time when a series of dramatic events have affected our national psyche and focused attention on the role of government in our lives. Today’s seniors were in high school in 2000 when, for the first time in our nation’s history, the Supreme Court decided the outcome of a presidential race. That event was soon followed by the Sept. 11 terrorist attack which reawakened patriotism and trust in government but made us question our own safety and security. By the time the Iraq war broke out, the Class of 2006 was in college and supported the war in response to terrorism. Ironically, growing dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq contributed to a renewed political engagement on the part of students who followed the race for president very closely.
The 2004 Presidential Election dramatically reversed the previous decline in students’ political participation. The percentage of 18 to 24-year-olds voting was the highest in over a decade. Motivated by opposition to the war and concerns over the economy, young people turned out in even greater numbers than seniors aged 65 and older. The 2004 elections showed the power that young people can have when engaged. The challenge in the coming months and years is to translate increased student voting into a continuing commitment to be involved in politics and government. Will the power of the youth vote be used to make a difference in our political system?
President John F. Kennedy ’40, who, as a Harvard undergrad, was inspired to a life of public service, described the responsibility we have as educated citizens to participate in our Democracy. Speaking to students at Vanderbuilt University in 1963, President Kennedy said, “All Americans must be responsible citizens. But, some must be more responsible than others by virtue of their public or their private positions, their role in the family or the community, their prospects for their future, or their legacy from the past. Increased responsibility goes with increased ability. For those to whom much is given, much is required.” He must certainly have been thinking about the legacy of future generations of students—especially Harvard students, given his own history—when he delivered those remarks.
The Institute of Politics (IOP), created as a memorial to President Kennedy more than four decades ago, aims to inspire undergraduates to the Kennedy ideal of the educated citizen with an “obligation to serve the public.” Whether you’re a Democrat, Republican, Independent, or “not sure,” the IOP can connect you with officials and activists who know how to make the political system work. Whether it’s coming down to hear Shimon Perez articulate his vision for peace in the Middle East or debating with Bob Graham in a study group on the future of health care in America, students are challenged to re-examine their own views and think creatively about today’s most complex issues. The Institute of Politics offers more than a dozen programs including community service, debate, and policy initiatives, in addition to events that bring students together with leaders from across the country and around the world.
Forty years ago when the Institute of Politics was created, the country faced similar issues of war and peace and poverty and race as we do today. The power of the youth vote that we saw in the 2004 election has the potential to make a difference on these issues, as well as to change the way politics is conducted. We understand that all students who pass through Harvard will not become politicians or dedicate their entire lives to public service. However, we hope that, as President Kennedy said, we will recognize our responsibility as educated citizens not only to participate in our Democratic process, but also to shape it.
Jeanne Shaheen is the former governor of New Hampshire and is director of the Institute of Politics. David M. Kaden ’06 and Elise M. Stefanik ’06, both Crimson editors, are the president and vice-president of the Student Advisory Committee at the IOP.
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