Each year, hundreds of South Carolina high schoolers get a close-up lesson in how government works as part of the Palmetto Boys State and Palmetto Girls State programs.
Sponsored nationally by the American Legion, Boys State and Girls State are immersive, weeklong sessions designed to promote patriotism, leadership, civic involvement and an understanding of our nation’s institutions. There are mock elections for statewide offices, as well as a mock Legislature and court system.
Participants are selected by their high schools and formally sponsored by their local American Legion posts. Palmetto Boys State, which began in 1940, was held this year at Anderson University in Anderson, S.C. Palmetto Girls State, first held in 1947, was hosted this year by Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C.
On June 15, Boys State and Girls State came together at the State Capitol for a parade, rally, and mock inauguration ceremony. As always, I was excited to participate. The opportunity to speak and interact with state officials is an important part of the Boys State/Girls State experience. And personally, I always learn a lot from spending time with them.
I’m always impressed by these young people. It certainly speaks well of them that they’re willing to spend the first week of their summer break in this way, especially while many of their friends are headed to Beach Week. They’re obviously excited to be there and enthusiastic about learning the ins and outs of public policy-making. And they’re optimistic about the future.
For those people let down by or fed up with the politicians of the present, these teens offer hope.
Today’s political class falls short of what Americans deserve. Especially in Washington, those who govern us often seem more interested in scoring political points than fixing problems. Some in Congress are bent on endlessly refighting a two-year-old presidential election.
The current state of public debate isn’t for the queasy. We live in a time when incivility is defiantly embraced. Toxic rhetoric which once would have been condemned by decent people of all stripes – from vile personal attacks to calls for the public harassment of civil servants – aren’t just tolerated, they’re celebrated. Certainly, such atmosphere does little to promote the kind of meaningful debate that is needed to find solutions to our many formidable challenges.
Yes, it’s easy to be dispirited. But there’s also good reason for optimism, as I was reminded as I spoke with the young men and women of Boys/Girls State… and as I’m reminded whenever I’m afforded the opportunity to spend time with today’s young people. They want a better country, and they’re eager to help build it. They seem to understand that meaningful change isn’t about winning elections but about winning hearts and minds.
They realize it’s possible to fight for closely-held convictions without abandoning civility or decency. They believe public service is an honorable pursuit for those who are in it to further our common good. They may be coming up in an age of cynicism, but they’re committed to rising above it.
Today’s teens will one day be the ones who must create the policies we live under, chart our society’s course, and clean up messes left behind by their elders. I believe they’re up to the challenge. We’ll be in good hands.