One of the great privileges of teaching and working on a university campus is the chance to be in touch with young people. Over the past few years, I’ve watched the upcoming generation of citizens and leaders, and what I’ve seen heartens me.
The young people I’ve met are, for the most part, deeply concerned about the future of the country. They can be sharply critical, but it’s clear that most of them take a fundamental pride in what this nation stands for and how far it’s traveled over the centuries.
This shows up in a fundamental respect for the country’s diversity and an overall respect for many of the institutions of representative democracy: the military, the courts, law enforcement, the health care system — though Congress often comes in for some sharp words. To be sure, they can also be critical of these institutions’ flaws, but I haven’t encountered anyone who wants to tear them up and start over again. Instead, they want to fix what’s in front of them.
There are several key issues that dominate our conversations: climate change, COVID-19, student loans and college debt. If you ask what problems they’re most concerned about, racial issues also loom large: they see racial inequity and repairing historic wrongs as a huge and important challenge to our representative democracy.
As for their own participation, I often ask if anyone wants to run for public office. I’m always pleasantly surprised at the number of hands that go up. More than a few want to pursue jobs in government, arguing they can make a greater contribution there than they might otherwise. Perhaps most heartening, even those who have no desire to serve in government want to serve their communities and improve their corner of the world. I always come away stirred by their desire to be of service.
Their discussions about where the country’s headed are often robust, with sharp differences of opinion. But underlying these conversations is a general optimism about the future — and, quite notably in this political climate, a wide tolerance for the viewpoints of others and a willingness to listen to one another.
The one other thing I’ll note is that fairly regularly, I come across students — of all races, ethnicity, and description — who are talented, engaged and impressive. They are, I believe, marked for leadership. And if I’m right, we’re going to be in good hands.
Lee Hamilton is a senior adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.