A Day at Boy’s State

Tuesday I drove to Angola, Indiana (and yes, it’s a LONG and boring drive), to talk to a group of seventeen-year-old boys who were attending a leadership training session as part of this year’s Boy’s State.

My youngest son attended Boy’s State some quarter-century ago, and not much about teenaged smart-asses has changed. (I happen to really like teenage smart-asses; all of my sons fell into that category.) It’s a time of life when bright kids still think everything is possible, when everything, no matter how humdrum or serious, is fodder for adolescent humor, and the world is endlessly interesting.

Of course, our current political dysfunction hasn’t escaped notice. During the question-and-answer exchange, one boy posed a question: Given the choice, would I prefer to run 10 miles in 95 degree heat, or spend a half-hour with Sarah Palin? (I had not mentioned the former half-term governor of Alaska during my talk).

I’m attaching the text of my remarks–which will seem very familiar to those of you who read this blog with some regularity.


The program at Boy’s State was founded on a simple but very powerful insight: In order to be a leader, you first have to be a good citizen. Those of you who are here today clearly understand that—Boy’s State traditionally draws the most politically aware and civically active students. So I am probably preaching to the choir, but here goes!

If there is one thing that history has taught us, it is that without good citizens–citizens who vote, participate in policy debates and hold government accountable–power really does corrupt those who exercise it. Apathetic citizens enable indifferent and self-serving public officials.

If leaders are first and foremost good citizens, the question becomes: what makes a good citizen? I think that there are three requirements topping the list: Constitutional literacy, critical thinking skills, and the willingness to pay one’s dues.

What do I mean by each of these?

1)     Let’s start with Constitutional literacy. You simply can’t be a good, responsible citizen if you are ignorant of the history and philosophy of your own country. A couple of months ago, Newsweek Magazine ran an article titled “How Ignorant Are You?” It was a quiz, with questions taken from the tests immigrants have to pass in order to become citizens. The percentages of Americans who could answer the questions correctly were embarrassing—for most of them, it was less than 30%. There are literally hundreds of other surveys that confirm how little most Americans know about their own system: two-thirds of us don’t even know that we have three branches of government!

If you don’t know what the Enlightenment was, and how it shaped our constitutional system, if you don’t understand that the purpose of the Bill of Rights was to protect individual rights both from government and from what the Founders called “the tyranny of the majority,” if you don’t understand the difference between civil liberties and civil rights, you can be a very good person, but I would argue that you don’t know enough to be a good citizen.

Constitutional and historic literacy are just the beginning. You also need critical thinking skills.

2)     What I mean by critical and analytical skills is the ability to tell the difference between facts and garbage. One of the reasons that Constitutional literacy and an analytical mind are such important parts of good citizenship is that the world is a much more complicated place than it used to be, especially when it comes to the oceans of information we get every day. The internet is a wonderful thing—I’m not sure how I survived before email and Google and Facebook—but because it brings so much unfiltered material into our lives, the ability to separate factual, credible information from spin and propaganda is more important than it has ever been. If you don’t know what the Constitution and Bill of Rights really say, or how the Courts have defined and interpreted what they say, you’re a lot more likely to believe that forwarded email you got from your crazy old Uncle Ray, or the fabricated history being peddled by the partisans on talk radio.

In the last few years, we have seen incredible changes in the media. Fewer people read newspapers or even watch the evening news on television, and more and more of us get our information on line. Some of that is great, some of it isn’t. We are in danger of losing real journalism—where people monitor what governments and businesses do, where they fact-check and provide context and background. Instead, we have mountains of unsubstantiated opinion, PR and spin. Good citizens have to be able to separate fact from fantasy. They have to live in the world as it is, not in a bubble where they listen only to things that confirm what they already believe—and the internet makes it so easy and tempting to construct that bubble. At the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, where I teach, we are so concerned about this issue that we have established a new undergraduate major in Media and Public Affairs. So far, it is the only major of its kind in the country.

There have always been programs exploring the connection between the press and democracy—examining why the Press received First Amendment protection and what role the so-called “Fourth Estate” is expected to play. But at SPEA, we teach people who will manage the public’s business—the people who will be tomorrow’s political leaders, elected officials and public servants, the men and women who will make and administer the laws. And those people can’t do their jobs unless they understand the constantly changing media environment in which they will operate.

I used to be the Indianapolis Corporation Counsel—the head of the city’s legal department. There were two newspapers, four television stations, and three full-time reporters who covered city government. If my Mayor wanted to communicate with his constituents, he put out a news release or called a press conference. Today, there is one anemic newspaper, literally hundreds of television channels, and no full-time reporters covering city hall. If a Mayor or business leader, or nonprofit manager today wants to communicate, he or she has to use multiple mediums: the local newspaper and broadcast channels, Facebook and Twitter, maybe You Tube…and undoubtedly there will be many others, as yet un-invented, by the time you all are active in your communities.  Those leaders not only need to know what’s out there, they need to know how to use those media to counter misinformation. And they need to understand that in the age of the internet nothing they email or tweet or put on You Tube is ever private. In other words, they need to learn what not to communicate—Just ask George Allen or Anthony Weiner.

Finally, the third quality of a good citizen:

3)     Willingness to pay one’s dues—taxes. This one isn’t going to make me any friends, but it’s true. We’ve had 25 years of politicians telling us that taxes are like theft, that they are government stealing our money.  Not so. Taxes are the price we pay to live in a society that makes it possible for us to earn a living and live in safe communities. Our taxes pay for everything from national defense to paved roads to air safety to garbage collection. Tax dollars pay for the schools you attend, the parks you play in, the police and firefighters who keep you safe. Don’t misunderstand—good citizens are diligent watchdogs of the public purse, because there’s nothing virtuous or patriotic about waste or duplication—but they are also willing to pay their fair share without whining about it.

Think about a basketball team where some players just don’t pull their weight, or clubs you belong to where most of the members let a few people do all the work. Most of us don’t think very highly of the slackers. Leaders and good citizens aren’t slackers—they do their share. And that includes paying their share.

There are lots of other behaviors that characterize good citizens—voting, keeping up on the news, serving on juries, working for a political party or for a cause you believe in—all the things we mean when we encourage civic engagement. But if you aren’t civically literate—if you don’t know the basics of our history and constitutional system—your vote won’t be as informed and you won’t be as effective.

If you don’t have the ability to assess the credibility of the news and commentary you are receiving, you won’t get the whole story, or the accurate account, and you will make decisions based on bad or inadequate or incomplete information.

And if you accept public services—police protection, garbage collection, paved roads, education and so many more—but you don’t pay your fair share of taxes, you aren’t a citizen at all. You’re a freeloader.

At the end of the day, being a good citizen requires a lot more than just being born in the United States. It’s more than wearing a flag pin, or being proud of what this country has accomplished. Being a good citizen means doing your part to move America forward, it means helping this country of ours live up to its highest ideals. And that requires civic knowledge, intellectual honesty and a willingness to contribute time, effort and tax dollars to our common civic enterprise.

Of course, you can be a civically-literate, well-informed, taxpaying citizen and not be a leader—and let’s acknowledge that good followers are just as important as good leaders. There are many skills that characterize leaders—skills that set them apart. One of the most important is the ability to communicate.

You’ll notice I didn’t say the ability to speak. That’s important, but language skills are only a part of communicating. Understanding our changing media environment is only a part of communicating. When my own children and grandchildren went to college, I gave them the same advice I am giving you today: get a liberal education that emphasizes oral and written communication, because if you can communicate effectively, you can do anything—and if you can’t communicate, you can’t succeed at anything. I was a lawyer for many years, and communication was at the very core of what I did every day—from writing clear, understandable contracts and legal documents, to persuading a judge or jury, expression is the heart of lawyering.

If you hope to run for office, or work in the public or nonprofit sector, the ability to communicate is equally important. I’ve hired people for jobs in every sector—public, private and nonprofit—and I can tell you that the most important skill after the basics involved in any particular job is the ability to speak and write clearly and without reliance on jargon.

Good communicators are good listeners, they know the rules of grammar and diction, and they don’t use flowery language or arcane vocabulary. Clear language tells listeners that you are a clear thinker. I’ve often had students come up after losing points on a test to tell me that “I knew what I meant, I just couldn’t say it.” Believe me, if you really know what you are talking about, you can say it. If you can’t say it, if you can’t communicate it, then you really don’t know it.

Good leaders have other, less-easily defined characteristics. Good judgment is very important. (For example, people with good judgment don’t tweet pictures of their bodily parts.) So are integrity and intellectual honesty. And no one has ever gotten into trouble by saying “I don’t know.” The desire to impress people will get you in trouble more quickly than you can imagine. None of us has the answer to all questions, and admitting you don’t know something doesn’t make you look dumb—it makes you look smart.

Good leaders—and good people—are open-minded. They aren’t judgmental. They make decisions and take positions based upon evidence rather than ideology. They recognize that most issues are more complex than most people realize. And they are genuine—authentic–rather than phony.

Some of us are born with these characteristics, but most of us have to work hard every day to learn, to grow and to listen.

You are doing that work now, just by being here.


  1. Yes, Sheila, but which would you prefer, a hot 10-mile run or a half hour with Palin? Your readers want to know!! 😉

  2. Keith–I absolutely hate running, and I’d probably pass out in the heat–but ANYTHING is better than talking to Sarah Vacuous Palin!

  3. And the award for “most ignorant of the functions of branches of government” goes to, Randy Thomasson of SaveCalifornia.com.


    The money quote: “These federal judges should be fired. They are violating their oath of office to uphold the federal law. They are saying they just don’t see any reason for the federal law. They’re not obeying it,” he laments. “It’s not up to them to judge whether they like a law or not — it’s their job to enforce the law.””

Comments are closed.