Our two presidential candidates put aside their campaigns on a significant day last week-September 11-to focus on a movement they both heartily support: public service. Their efforts focused national attention for a few moments on a stark and pressing reality. The staggering challenges we face cannot be solved by government alone; they require the collective commitment of citizens from all walks of life.
As someone who enjoys a continuing and rewarding interaction with our younger generation, I am happy to report that these young people are ahead of our candidates on this one. Our college students get it.
In higher education, we have been witnessing a growing desire among students to make a difference in the community-ranging from neighborhood tutoring programs to campaigns for refugee rights. College students have helped to rebuild New Orleans after the ravages of Katrina and feed the homeless in our nation's cities through programs such as the Campus Kitchens Project, which has served and distributed more than 715,000 meals throughout the country. At Gettysburg, students spend more than 20,000 hours a year working in the community.
This experience with service learning develops our students' commitment to society and helps them to understand and address the underlying issues that have created social injustice. Beyond the good students do for others, they also learn how to maximize the work of teams, how to lead, how to engage with people who come from cultures different from their own, how to solve challenging problems, and how to communicate effectively with people who have a different world view-all skills that benefit the communities in which they work, enrich the students' educational experience, and have the potential to lead to a lifelong commitment to public service.
The importance of service is close to the heart of our nation's liberal arts institutions. Although only three percent of U.S. bachelor degree students graduate from liberal arts colleges, these graduates are more highly represented in such organizations as the Peace Corps. Gettysburg's graduates are well represented in Teach for America and Americorps as well as the Peace Corps, and we count the former heads of UNICEF, the Peace Corps, the NAACP, and Lutheran World Relief among our alumni.
Barack Obama himself attended a liberal arts college. He spent two years at Occidental College in California before transferring to Columbia University. Although his official biographies often skip over his Occidental years, he told a commencement audience last spring, it was at Occidental that he began to see the connection between public policy and the lives of everyday people, which sparked his passion for politics.
It is a passion we continue to see on campus. Although polls show that confidence in our government is nearing an all-time low, this year's campaign season has borne witness to a resurgence of youthful activism. Students feel like they can make a difference.
That enthusiasm is shared by individuals well versed in the ways of government such as former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor who told the Gettysburg College graduating class of 2008: "The individual can make things happen... Whether the individual acts in the legal, governmental, or private realm, remember a single person can meaningfully affect what some consider to be an uncaring world."
I would not have spent my career in higher education if I were not a firm believer in the power of the individual. American higher education was grounded in the creation of an engaged citizenry. In 1837 Horace Mann argued that universal education was not only a safeguard of democracy, but also an essential tool of social justice. John F. Kennedy's famous call to service: "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country' struck a chord among the post-war generation, but two decades later, in the 1980s, interest in public service waned. Now that interest has returned, and we - the older generation, the educators - must not let it slip away.
We have the responsibility to teach our students how to translate what they learn into meaningful contributions to their professions, their communities, and to the world. We must actively search for ways to spark a capacity for action that will contribute to the greater good.
We believe the value of an education is measured by what graduates do with their lives. Making the world a better place may sound like a platitude, but there have been few times in our nation's history when we have needed the help of all Americans more. I applaud both Senator McCain and Obama's efforts to encourage young people, our nation's best and brightest, to get involved.
And I applaud our young people for recognizing the challenge - and accepting it.
Dr. Janet Morgan Riggs is the interim president of Gettysburg College and a professor of psychology.