Frustrated with the quality of political debate in this country, I have some questions: “what do fully formed, competent politicians look like? Where might we find such people? What characteristics should politicians have regardless of party affiliation? How might we identify appropriate candidates?” I say this not as a condemnation of all people currently filling elected office–many serve for all the right reasons (hint: public service) and do their work earnestly and responsibly; however, their voices are consistently drowned out by their more self-serving colleagues.
Wouldn’t it be nice if…we could create a mechanism that would identify those people who would approach their work as true public service and also have the knowledge, skill, and expertise requisite to perform that service well. Keep in mind that we spend much more time, energy, and money attempting to use tests to tell us whether or not a child is ready for fifth grade or ready for college than we do trying to assess whether or not a person meets minimal requirements to hold public office. For the sake of argument, why not use a test to gauge an individual’s preparation to serve in public office.
A Non-Modest and Certainly Impossible Proposal:
- Within one month of every eligible voter’s twenty-fifth birthday, he or she will take the National Political Service Readiness Exam, a yet-to-be created test designed to measure one’s readiness to serve in national elected office.
- This will be a test for every eligible voter because many of the best potential leaders may not see themselves as such. (I do not believe either self-selection or a small group of party loyalists are adequate filters alone for the type of leaders we need.)
- People who do not meet the standard will be allowed to re-take the test once every five years.
- It will measure: decisiveness, empathy, selflessness, organization, loyalty, humility, leadership, and stamina.
- It will also assess listening, speaking, and writing skills.
- It will quantify the quality of each person’s memory.
- Successful participants will demonstrate an excellent knowledge of our country’s history as well as world history, and they will also have an extensive knowledge of current events.
- Successful participants will reveal a moral and ethical compass.
- Successful participants will reveal the ability to think divergently.
- Only people who pass will be eligible to pursue office.
- Knowing that the test is on the horizon would encourage young people to develop the knowledge and skill requisite to pass the test. Our shared, national goal would be to have more and more people pass as we will want as many qualified candidates as possible to compete for offices.
- We would create a base-line, a non-partisan one, for identifying candidates.
- We would find the group most likely to rise above debate rather than sink below it.
- Each state, each congressional district would be more invested in creating educational experiences for students that would lead to developing the next generation of high quality leaders.
NOTE: There are myriad reasons that no such test could become a reality. Even if such a test could be developed, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to assess equitably and reliably, and we would create a gigantic bureaucracy in order to create it, deliver it, administer it, assess it, and report the results of it. Test review books would flood the market, and those who could afford it would get tutors to help them prepare. Some people who did not pass would challenge the results, and the court system will have an entirely new category of caseload clogging its calendar. In our current cultural milieu, it would provide us yet another reason to shout at each other.
So if such an assessment is an impossibility, what can we do? I struggle to construct a how-to list for creating a political landscape that would allow extraordinary leaders, regardless of party affiliation, to rise more easily to the surface. However, there is one variable over which we may have some control–education.
One key area of education necessary to help create the leaders for the next generation involves a commitment to deep community engagement for both schools and for the students that populate them. We must do a better job of connecting our students to the communities where they live, near where they live, and far from where they live. We have made the world too small for students. As a result, we have made real issues abstract for them. We have too often allowed them to think that, no matter their political orientation, ethnicity, economic means, geographic location, gender identify, or sexual orientation, they can exist in a vacuum, in a sort of self-blinding isolation from whomever they define as “the other.” Importantly, schools have more often than not operated as if they are in a vacuum as well.
It is critical to do better. Recently, I have been working with The Anchor Schools Project (founded by Sara Mierke, https://www.linkedin.com/in/saralmierke/) to facilitate conversations about how to build a coalition of schools that are committed to being valuable neighbors–beneficiaries of and contributors to the communities in which they exist. Dr. King said we are “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” It seems that every time we try to deny the truth of this statement as a local community or nation, it reasserts itself. Covid-19 is a dangerous reassertion of this truth to say the least. However, harnessing the “network of mutuality” for shared good is also, I believe, our best hope for the future. The work ahead for education is not simply about developing a curriculum thread in which students learn how to engage their communities more usefully and dynamically; it also requires that educational institutions reflect this priority through their own engagement in and positive impact on their communities.
Sometimes schools have to be counter-cultural. This is one of those times. At a moment when our larger culture tells us to take care of “our own” exclusively (a narrowly defined group), schools must work with students to reveal that they are indeed part of a vast and extraordinary “network of mutuality.” If schools, in partnership with families, students, and their larger communities, can do this, students will have backgrounds that will prepare more of them for public service, and more will be inclined to pursue political office.
Of course, sifting to the surface the next generation of politicians is not the only reason for schools to pursue deep community engagement. All of the graduates of institutions that prioritize this work will benefit, as will the communities in which they live, work, and contribute. In addition, schools that are more fully woven into the fabric of their communities will have the best chance to be sustainable as the market continues to shift and contract.