After graduating college, many students lose sight of civic engagement as they focus on moneymaking.

Many college students today feel themselves to be under immense pressure to secure their own professional futures – to be able to repay loans and to avoid falling on the wrong side of the deepening economic divide. Others want to acquire money and comfort, or power, because this is how a successful life has generally been portrayed to them. But many also have a concern with community and social problems and have experience doing various kinds of volunteer work; others are interested in politics and public service.

However, the ideas that getting serious about social change requires more than just volunteer work, and that democratic action is not simply about campaigns, elections, and the deeds of politicians, remain relatively novel to college students. As a college teacher, it is easy to get frustrated when confronted with students who are clueless, disengaged, or unwilling to see beyond the moneymaking definition of success. But in my experience many students are in fact eager for an alternative definition of a good life, and eager to learn more about social movements and social change. This is true whatever the self-described political leanings (if any) of students.

Students at Western Kentucky University.

Last February, I gave a talk on the subject of civic engagement to freshman and sophomore students in the Honors College at Western Kentucky University, a public university of 21,000 students in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Attendees were primarily students in Professor Elizabeth Gish’s course “Citizen and Self,” which engages students first-hand in collaborative community-based research in the city of Bowling Green while studying fundamental concepts of citizenship and justice. I have been teaching similar courses at the University of Richmond since 2005, and one purpose of the talk was to help explain to students the value of direct engagement in their communities as an educational experience, since this concept is still unfamiliar to many students (and academics).

Professor Gish advised me that the majority of attendees would probably have voted Republican in the last election. Nonetheless, the students responded positively to my talk.

The responsibility of educators is ultimately not to get upset because our students do not share the same views or have the same commitments we have, but to engage with students where they are and introduce them to alternate perspectives, including a social justice perspective. The primary purpose of my talk was not partisan or ideological, but to make the case for the value of the persistently civically engaged life. I am sharing the text of my talk below for those who are interested.

Civic Engagement: A Talk Given at Western Kentucky University

I want to start with a simple premise: this is a challenging time to be a human being, especially a human being with a social conscience. Our society and our planet are faced with problems that seem overwhelming and are frankly painful to contemplate. For starters, we need only think of the nightmarish gun violence directed at an elementary school classroom in Newtown. We might also contemplate the one in five American children who are growing up in poverty in the world’s richest nation. Thanks to social research, we know a great deal about the impact of poverty on children’s cognitive, social and emotional development, yet we seem relatively powerless as a society to take the steps needed to end child poverty. Then we might turn to the global picture and consider the incredible scenes last summer of melting ice in Greenland and the incontrovertible accumulated evidence that climate change is well under way, and acknowledge that even if we began to address the problem with the urgency it demands, weather-driven disasters and displacements are likely to be a recurring fact of human life in the twenty-first century.

The real world often seems a painful place to contemplate, and most people who think seriously about these problems are initially overcome with a debilitating sense of powerlessness, even hopelessness. It’s more pleasant on a day-to-day basis to avoid thinking about these things. And for those of us who are at least moderately well-off, living in affluent societies, there are a lot of tools and toys available to help us avoid thinking about or dealing with these things. We can spend most of our days engaged with our music, favorite TV shows, playing and watching sports, playing video games, and poking one another on Facebook. It’s possible to spend the better part of our lives in this media bubble.

I say this as someone who is an avid consumer of music, TV shows, sports, video games, and Facebook. I don’t knock these things, especially if they are used as tools of civic engagement, or if they are understood as diversionary activities that actually help us do real, hard work better and more sustainably over the long run.

Nonetheless, I often worry as a college teacher that this all-encompassing social media, combined with the pressure to develop marketable skills and go out and make money, are conspiring to deprive college students of a precious opportunity: the opportunity to think deeply, alone and in ongoing conversation with others, about what kind of person one wants to become, and to begin making steps towards living that kind of life.

Today I want to make the case for the civically engaged life – the kind of life that does not dodge our biggest problems, but rather dares to try to tackle them, and the kind of life that is driven by a moral compass (understanding that no one’s moral compass is infallible). Figuring out what kind of person you want to be is the true work of college students. In Book X of Plato’s Republic, Socrates closes his epic account of justice by relating the Myth of Er. Socrates has just spent nine and a half books explaining why it’s better to be just than unjust, independent of the good consequences being just usually brings. The justly ordered soul is a soul at peace with itself, in which all the parts of the soul work together as friends, whereas the unjustly ordered soul is constantly at war with itself and fearful of others.

Having made that argument, now Socrates is going to show that a proper understanding of justice helps the soul in the afterlife as well. Er is a fellow who is slain in battle, travels to the afterlife to see what becomes of souls after death, and then is sent back to Earth to report on what he has witnessed. He reports that those who had good, just lives go to a happy place for a thousand years, and that those who led bad, unjust lives go to an unhappy place of suffering for a thousand years. At the end of the thousand years, all souls except the most depraved and wicked are given the chance to choose a new life – a life of any human being or animal. Foolish and hasty souls often greedily chose to become the richest and most powerful people, without considering all the consequences. One person, for instance, chose to become a powerful king without noticing he would be required to eat his own children. But wiser folks chose simpler lives in which they would have the best opportunity to be contented, happy, and well-ordered. I love the story of the Myth of Er, and part of me actually thinks it would be really cool if Er’s story were in fact true. But that’s not why I’m mentioning it now. I’m mentioning it now because you as college students are in much the same position as the souls in the afterlife Plato describes: you have the opportunity, in these years, to choose the kind of person you want to become.

Plato (right) learns from his mentor, Socrates (left).

That’s a choice that Socrates would recommend you think carefully about. In particular, he’d say don’t focus on the material perks or superficial benefits of a given career or life path, but on whether you are going to be happy with yourself on the inside – which in his view, is a function of the character and virtues you possess. To this, I might also add that you should think about what kinds of experiences you are going to have, day in and day out, the kinds of feelings they will inspire, and the challenges and satisfactions those experiences are going to bring.

I’ll give you a short example. Just this past weekend, my wife’s organization, the Richmond Peace Education Center, had one of its signature events of the year, a variety show concert put on by youth from across our city in honor of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. There was dancing and singing and guitar playing, spoken word poetry and rapping, speeches and dramatic readings. Some of it was really good, and some of it wasn’t quite as good. But all of it was beautiful, because young folks were expressing themselves and because the gathered community, a diverse collection of people, came together in support of the performers and one another. As is the custom, the evening ended with a mass impromptu African drum jam that invited everyone up to stage to beat on something, dance or just hang out. Probably less than $500 was spent on the event for booking the location – no alcohol was involved, no tickets were sold and no credit cards were billed. Yet, it was one of the highlights of our year. Our souls were moved, our creativity was engaged, our wonder at human life was tapped into, and we felt a sense of joy.

Now of course, maybe my wife and I are just the kind of people who like amateur creative performances by teenagers, whereas other people love black-tie galas and would be bored out of their mind watching teenage performers from a high-poverty school deliver a high-energy, original dramatic reading about the scourge of gun violence in their community. But if that is so, it’s not simply a random fact about ourselves, but the cumulative result of the choices we’ve made about what to do with our lives and what kind of lives we want to lead. We haven’t chosen a life of economic poverty, but we also haven’t chosen a life in which increased satisfaction and joy depends on rising incomes and making each year’s expenditure more exorbitant than the last. That’s because being engaged with others in the community brings a plethora of satisfactions that may cost a lot in terms of time, effort, and investment of one’s heart and soul, but not very much in terms of money.

So I would agree with Socrates in imploring you to think carefully about what kind of person you want to become, and the kinds of satisfactions and stresses it is going to produce on a daily basis. Having put that question on the table, let me go on to make the case for one kind of life – a life oriented towards civic engagement and social justice.

I’ve already made one key point – the civically engaged life offers a lot of satisfactions and potential joy – alongside frustration and hard work and times when one gets tired and just wants to go home and watch TV like everyone else. But if you enjoy the feeling when your heart is moved or you see amazing things accomplished, it’s a great life.

But what exactly does it entail? Supposing one is interested in choosing the civically engaged life – what does that look like? And how can your education serve that choice? That’s the main focus of my remarks tonight – the seven virtues of the civically engaged human being.

The first virtue is awareness. This virtue encompasses a lot of different things. Maybe the easiest way to put it is: don’t be oblivious! Oblivious about what? About the problems that exist in your community and our society; about the fact that the world is not a fair place; about the fact that many people continue to suffer and live constrained lives because of profound historical and present-day injustices. As I said at the beginning, it’s easy to get sucked into our own private worlds, tune out these realities, and live a passive life on terms set by others. This is what the French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville, author of Democracy in America, worried about when he spoke of the danger of democracy descending into soft despotism: people would forget that freedom is about collective action to shape one’s society together, and people would forfeit their civic freedom and stick only to their immediate problems so long as their material needs were met.

Tocqueville expected that democratic societies would continue to be quite consumeristic in form, and that individuals and families would tend to retreat into their own private spaces. Tocqueville’s hope was that religion, newspapers, and local political participation would counter those tendencies and allow civic freedom to endure. Those mechanisms are still very important. If you want to be aware of what’s going on in the world, you have to read a quality newspaper regularly. Ideally, in fact, you’d read more than one paper; you’d read one or more local papers with good coverage of local events, you’d read a strong national paper, and you’d read a paper based outside the United States. You’d study the opinion pages and see what people across the political spectrum are saying, inside and outside the country. Do that over a period of years, and you will indeed become a more aware and informed person.

Even so, there is good reason to worry about the efficacy of each of these traditional mechanisms. Newspapers are in decline, and only a minority of citizens are consistently engaged in local politics.

This is where education has a crucial role to play, especially community-based education. You can read about problems in books and articles, and this will expand your awareness to a degree. But there is no substitute for direct experience in shaping one’s sense of how the world works. Community-based learning that places students in a different social location to which they are accustomed or which compels students to engage with a concrete problem is a crucial way to build awareness. To take an example from Richmond, if you tour our badly overcrowded City Jail, which the Sheriff openly describes as an institution not fit for human beings, and see hundreds of confined bodies, many of whom are nonviolent drug offenders, mentally ill, or just plain poor, and most of whom have dark skin, it will change the way you think about criminal justice, about race, and potentially about the entire structure of American society. Our class took that tour this past December, and it had just that effect – on not only the students, but on my faculty colleague and myself as well.

The second key virtue is sympathy. By sympathy, I mean not simply an emotion, but the cognitive ability to use one’s imagination to put one’s self in the position of others and “[conceive] what we ourselves should feel in the like situation.” This ability was at the core of the moral philosophy of Adam Smith, the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher and economist.

Why is this important? Because it’s perfectly possible to be aware that something troubling is going on in the world, and not really give a darn. But if one extends the effort to imagine what it might be like to the person experiencing troubles or suffering, it’s much harder to be indifferent.

Historically, and in the present day, we often find it much easier to sympathize with people who look like us or are of the same gender and class as opposed to those who are different, those who are near and dear to us as opposed to those who are far away, and those with whom we share a community with as opposed to those who belong to a different political community or country. Almost all political philosophers today regard failure to extend sympathy based on race, class, gender, religion, sexuality, and the like as a moral failure. There is more debate about whether our tendency to favor those who are nearer to us and part of the same country as ourselves is also immoral. Personally I take the view that community requires a degree of favoritism, but that there are limits on how far this favoritism can go. Communities have collective obligations not to dominate or brazenly exploit other communities, for instance.

But let’s instead take the less contested question about the need to extend sympathy to others within our own political community, especially those who are different from us. This is the right thing to do, but it’s hard. One of the most important pieces of literature in American if not world history was set right here in Kentucky – Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel of 1852, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Stowe framed the novel to allow her target white northern audience, especially Christian women, to be able to effectively identify with and sympathize with African-American slaves, through the shared bond of motherhood. Stowe introduces the reader to the inhumanity of slavery not by depicting the whip, but rather the heartrending spectacle of slave families being broken apart in accordance with the business dealings of white owners and slave traders. The refusal of a slave mother to allow her child to be sold from a Kentucky farm down river drives the plot.

Sympathy thus can be inspired and encouraged through literature, film, and song, and this is critically important social justice work, in any era. I would further add that very often, civic engagement and concern with large policy and social justice questions are rooted in concern for some particular person and their problems. Poverty is just an abstract concept, but a mother who has just been burned out of her house struggling to keep herself and her four children out of homelessness and regain stability – that’s a human problem that can motivate one to do something in response. Poverty is a term used to aggregate the experiences of thousands or millions of such families in or on the edge of economic crisis, but you can’t understand the aggregate concept very well if you don’t understand the particular. Again, community-based learning provides a wonderful opportunity to build such personal relationships, and to recognize the human dimension of broad problems.

The third civic virtue is critical consciousness – this is where things get more challenging. Encouraging awareness of and sympathy for the downtrodden is not really controversial. Investigating the historical and political reasons why people are downtrodden is. This necessary inquiry leads one to not just discussion of discrete policy questions, but also questions about the way our political and economic system works. Does capitalism, for instance, require the existence of an underclass, or an army of the unemployed, as radical economists have long argued? Why did the standard of living of average American workers rise rapidly between 1948 and 1973, but rise much more slowly afterward? What are the political consequences of an economic system in which the top 1% holds over one-third of the wealth? Why can’t our society make meaningful progress in redressing climate change? Why are so many more African-Americans than whites in prison for drug-related offenses, when studies show that black people do not in fact use or sell drugs at a higher rate than white people? If we live in a democratic society, why has wealth and income tilted so severely towards the already-rich in recent years?

These are complex questions of political economy, sociology, and history – questions about the way the world does work and has worked. In my view, taking a historical perspective is often the most useful first cut. It’s generally easier to identify the sins, crimes, and injustices of our predecessors than our own. But if we grasp these historical injustices in their full severity, then follow the narrative forward, often we can see that current arrangements and practices are deeply shaped by past injustices that almost everyone regards as wrong.

Civically engaged people need to ask the why and the how questions – how and why did things get set up as they are? In terms of your education, that means you need to develop social analytical skills, as well as critical reading and listening skills. The practical problems you see when you are out in the community did not come out of nowhere – they have a history, and a structure of causation that you can strive to understand. Of course, on any long-standing issue there is going to be complexity and disagreement, even among scholars and experts. Scholarly understanding of problems may shift, sometimes dramatically, over time. In my area, urban politics, three of the dominant urban policies of the mid-twentieth century – separation of land uses, forcible redevelopment of old urban neighborhoods, and construction of high-density public housing for the poor – are almost universally rejected now as bad public policies and symbols of urban injustice.

I don’t know what the issues and history are here in Bowling Green. But I know this community has a history, and it’s probably a lot more interesting and complex than you imagine. Historical investigation can help uncover the details of that history, and reading deeply in fields like sociology and political science can help you see how that history relates to larger trends and social processes. The more you understand the roots of the issues you see, the better chance you have of coming up with effective responses.

This brings us to the next virtue of the civically engaged person, one that may surprise you: anger. By anger, I don’t necessarily mean expressions of anger like yelling or screaming at public officials. Rather, I mean the capacity to feel indignation and revulsion at injustices. The capacity to feel anger at the wrong treatment of ourselves or of other people is a healthy indicator of one’s desire to see people treated fairly and with dignity. It is sympathy’s necessary companion – if you care about someone, then you will get angry when they are mistreated. And if you happen to be the person on the receiving side of injustice, then the capacity to feel angry is a measure of self-respect.

Participants in the Montgomery Bus Boycott walk to work.

To be sure, anger can be misplaced, even by well-meaning citizens. And we must make sure our anger is well-grounded – again by using what Adam Smith called the “impartial spectator,” the ability to step outside ourselves and see a situation how someone on the outside might see it. We can do this by stepping back for a moment and thinking about the situation from all sides, and we can also doing it by checking our anger with other people to see what they think. Sometimes this process might confirm or even strengthen our anger, and sometimes this process might moderate or dissipate our indignation.

Even when feel certain we have well-grounded anger, we need to be strategic and humane in the way we deploy it. This is one of the major lessons one can learn from studying the lives of civil rights leaders like Rosa Parks. As you know, Parks sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 and helped kick-start the civil rights revolution by refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white person. Parks grew up in an era in which blacks were denied education and routinely subject to arbitrary violence that police made no effort to prevent. From an early age, she learned how to be strategic about expressing anger towards racial oppression. She simply couldn’t afford to lose her cool every time something was done wrong to her. Her act of refusing to move to the back of the bus was the product of years of training and self-control, as well as a strong feeling of self-respect and moral conviction in her cause. Rosa Parks’ “quietness” was in fact cover for the raging anger she felt.

Anger can be one of the most productive virtues. But lest anyone misunderstand, I want to stress that there is no necessary connection between anger and violence. I am largely convinced by the Gandhian argument that we must respect the humanity of even those who are oppressors, and that if appeals to reason fail, then nonviolent resistance, in which one demonstrates through sacrifice the strengths of one’s moral conviction, is almost always the preferred way to achieve social change, at least within constitutional democracies that afford citizens civil liberties.

Likewise, anger need not lead to hate. Anger at the status quo or at some specific injustice is almost always a necessary ingredient in sustaining the motivation of activists, over the long haul. Conversely, I would also argue that civic engagement and activism, having a constructive outlet for one’s anger, are precisely the things that keep anger from decaying into hate and hopelessness, hate that is all too likely to be expressed not at one’s real targets but at those immediately around us, or even our own selves through self-destructive behavior. At the same time, even among those who are activists, it’s often important to temper or tone down anger, lest it consume our own hearts and minds. It’s not healthy to be angry all the time, or to lose sense of the good and beautiful in life. Humor and irony are often essential survival skills in balancing out anger.

This leads us to our fifth civic virtue – hope and imagination. Hope and imagination are the flip side of anger and resolve. To solve a problem, or to build a more just community, we have to be able to imagine it first. We have to believe that change is possible, and we have to believe that efforts to create constructive changes are not futile.

As you may recall, a few years ago a junior senator from Illinois ran for the nation’s highest office talking about hope. He got a huge and enthusiastic response, indicating he had successfully tapped into and mobilized a deep hunger for a constructive, optimistic response to the nation’s many problems. An iconic poster of the candidate’s face, atop the word HOPE, became a hot item. In fact, I have one in my office.

But I have some criticisms of the way President Barack Obama has used the word hope. So far in his presidency, he hasn’t made it very clear what ordinary citizens can do at their local level to build more sustainable, equitable, and safe communities. Instead, all the energy has gone into mobilizing people to call their congressmen and Senators in support of Obama’s legislative priorities in Washington.

That was a mistake, though maybe one Obama will correct in his second term, at some point. But we don’t need to wait around for approval from the president to begin generating local visions of hope. Indeed, these local visions can often be more comprehensive and ambitious than what’s possible at the level of national politics these days. Because local visions touch on widely shared and acknowledged local problems, they also have a chance, at least to some degree; of being addressed in ways that don’t get sucked into the stale ideological discourse that dominates the national debate.

I’m really impressed and delighted your course is pursuing a study of Bowling Green. This is an awesome idea. I have been involved in Richmond in a somewhat similar project, an eighteen-month long anti-poverty commission that was charged by the mayor with developing a comprehensive local response to deep-seated poverty. One-quarter of the population in Richmond falls below the poverty line, including 40 percent of children. This is a problem that has been deepening for decades. People have long been aware of it, but Richmond politics have for a long time been infected by a cynicism that anything significant can get done.

In Richmond, and in many other places, it’s easier to be cynical and skeptical than to be hopeful. To be hopeful, to say that no, we can actually do something significant together that will benefit and even change the course of the community, is to risk being labeled as naïve. There really isn’t a good answer to that charge except to say that one could have said the same about many of the things Martin Luther King, Jr. advocated, and that cynicism is a self-fulfilling prophecy – and a sign of a spiritual sickness. At the end of the day, there’s no substitute for a positive vision, one bold enough to inspire energetic support, in making serious community change happen.

Here again Rosa Parks is relevant – consider this paragraph from her biography:

“To be an activist for racial justice in the 1940s meant working without any indication that your efforts would be realized in your lifetime. It meant struggling against the fear and nihilism that white supremacy produced in order to continue tilling the soil for a mass movement to be able to flower. For a person like Rosa Parks, whose stand on the bus would come to be seen as ushering in a glorious new chapter of civil rights history, it first meant imagining that there could be a story, finding others who agreed, and then painstakingly writing it, word by word, for more than a decade to get to the good part.” (Jeanne Theoharis, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, p. 18)

When I think about what Mrs. Parks and her associates had to go through to accomplish what they accomplished, I cannot help asking myself, what right do we have not to be hopeful?

One of the things that gave Mrs. Parks hope, at a time in her life when she was feeling burned out and discouraged, was two weeks at the Highlander Center in Tennessee when for the first time in her life she lived, ate, and strategized with whites on an equal basis. That experience renewed her hope and set the stage for the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Therein lies a clue for us today – hope isn’t just about waiting for the really big triumphs to come. It’s also about creating little triumphs as we go, that can sustain us and encourage us, and give us a small taste of a better future. Hope comes primarily not from the actions of politicians but from the steps we ourselves take to make a better world.

The sixth virtue is courage – the willingness to stick one’s neck out even when doing so will not earn you applause, to take risks, to be willing to bear the costs of challenging authority or bucking public opinion. Civil rights activists like Rosa Parks and Ella Baker in the 1940s risked being targets of violence when they tried to register voters, organize local NAACP chapters, and come to the aid of African-American women who had been sexually assaulted by whites – risks they took repeatedly. Most of us today can be reasonably confident that we will not have our houses bombed or receive obscene phone calls at home if we were engaged in advancing a cause or solving a problem.

But there are more subtle costs of social exclusion associated with taking a strong stand, something whites sympathetic to civil rights in the South in the 1950s and earlier often experienced. And most people have an initial reticence about challenging authority. Conflict can be painful, and it’s risky to possibly have bad things said about you, to your face or behind your back.

Without the courage to act in the face of criticism and opposition, you can’t get anywhere. What I want to stress here is that courage is not just an individual virtue or attribute; it’s the product of a strong community. Again, there are many examples from the civil rights movement of this. Women like Rosa Parks had strong relationships – with her husband, with others in the Montgomery NAACP, with mentors – people she could rely upon and trust with her life. What appeared to the outside world as individual heroism was actually the expression of a strong, determined community. Indeed, without that kind of community at your back, taking on the powers is usually both doomed and foolhardy.

Nonetheless, I would encourage you to take risks, and to take them when you are young. It gets much harder later on when you have more obligations, especially children. The number one question I get from students who are interested in civic engagement and social justice work in a serious way is how they can do that kind of work and also survive financially. It’s a perfectly legitimate question, and there is no clear-cut answer. What I say is first, you have to be willing to make your own way in the world, and accept the risks that come with that, including the fact that it may be hard to get a paying job to do the kind of work you love; but that you’d run an even bigger risk in deadening your soul if you didn’t pursue your passion. Second, I remind students that you don’t need necessarily to be a full-time civic engagement or nonprofit professional to be civically engaged. You can do it out of any profession – teaching, ministry, nursing, lawyering, doctoring and so on – and you can do it in and through business as well. But to do it seriously in one of those fields may often require you to go against the grain and show different priorities than most of those around you. Good. The world needs more professionals and business people willing to use their influence and resources proactively for the common good.

This leads us to our seventh virtue – humility, in some ways the flip side of courage. Humility involves the recognition that we do not have all the answers, that sometimes we will be wrong, that even when we are in the right we are probably only partially right, and that sometimes our best-intentioned actions will have unintended consequences that we may not welcome. For students and others doing work in disadvantaged communities, it’s absolutely crucial not to think that “we” university folk are there to save the community or to apply our superior knowledge. We can share resources and ideas and provide support, but ultimately the goal must be empowering people in disadvantaged communities to act on their own behalf, and to engage in two-way learning.

None of us are called to be saviors. What we are called to do is to start where we are, use what we have, and do what we can, be it a little or a lot. Humility doesn’t mean lacking confidence or belief in one’s ability to make a difference. Rather it means being conscious of our own fallibility and recognizing that it’s not all about you.

Those then are your seven virtues of the civically engaged person: awareness, sympathy, critical consciousness, anger, hope, courage, and humility. How does one acquire these habits? By attempting to put them into practice, sometimes alone but mostly in work with other people. Civic engagement by definition involves working with other people to solve problems. And changing or improving the status quo by definition means creating something new, making the path as you walk. A civically engaged life offers you the opportunity to create a life and life story for yourself that is truly unique; and it has the opportunity to help move your community, and by extension our entire society, into a different and better place.

It’s not supposed to be easy, but neither is effective civic engagement far from your grasp. Some of the most effective leaders of the civil rights movements in the early 1960s were college-age students hardly older than you. Some of those activists set aside their formal education to engage in struggling against injustice at home and abroad full-time. Others used a commitment to engagement and justice to frame their education and give it – and indeed their very lives – meaning. Whether or not you wish to make the same commitment must ultimately be your own choice, but my aim tonight is simply to show that it’s a real possibility for you, not just something you can read about in a book.

To me, the life of civic engagement is the most exciting and rewarding kind of life, because it engages so many of the aspects of what it means to be human: the emotions, the mind, the adventure of taking risks, creativity, working and building relationships with other people, and making things happen that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. It certainly has its stresses, disappointments, and frustrations too, that we should honest about. But in my experience and those of many others, the ongoing relationships and periodic moments of genuine exhilaration it offers far outweigh the frustrations. I hope you make the choice to give the civically engaged life your best try, both in your days here at WKU and in the decades to come – our society desperately needs the contribution of every one of you.

Dr. Thad Williamson is associate professor of leadership studies and philosophy, politics, economics and law at Richmond University. His research focuses on urban politics and sprawl, community economic development, politics in the city of Richmond, and sports, justice and ethics. His latest book, co-edited with Martin O’Neill and published by Blackwell-Wiley, is Property-Owning Democracy: Rawls and Beyond.



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