In the Wake of the Tragedy in Arizona: An Open Letter to My Students

In the Wake of the Tragedy in Arizona: An Open Letter to My Students

In the Wake of the Tragedy in Arizona: An Open Letter to My Students

Saturday’s shootings reminded me that a democratic republic requires much more sacrifice than I had allowed myself to remember when I have advised you to run for public office.


Dear Students,

For years I have had one, insistent piece of advice for all of you: run for office. Voting, I have told you, is the citizenship equivalent of brushing your teeth: I am glad you do it regularly, but I am hardly going to applaud you for achieving such a minimal responsibility. If you have taken classes from me you have likely heard me urge you to offer yourself for public service by running for elected office. This, I have explained, is a better measure of citizenship commitment because it expands the pool of talent available for governing our country. Because I have been lucky to teach all of you exceptionally bright students at world-class universities I have never had any hesitation suggesting that you (male and female, conservative and liberal, Republican and Democrat) consider making a bid for elected office.

I thought of all of you this weekend when I first learned of the shooting in Arizona. I felt tremendously guilty when I suddenly realized I had failed to adequately warn you about the potential costs of choosing a path that might take you into public office. From the safety of our classroom it has been easy to imagine that modest paychecks, invasion of personal privacy, and the verbal barbs of tough critics were the greatest challenges you would face if you followed my advice. Saturday’s shootings reminded me that a democratic republic requires much more sacrifice than I had allowed myself to remember when I have advised you to run.

I would like to write off the Arizona shootings as the atypical, unlikely, and shocking outcome of a toxic, but rare mix of personal madness, high tech weaponry, and insufficient security. By one reading, those things are true. But as your teacher I think I owe it to you to remind you that across the globe and throughout history, it has been dangerous to hold public office and to attempt to wield the power of the state. It is particularly difficult when you are a part of a state that derives its consent from citizens who are free to disagree, free to assemble, free to speak, and free to bear arms. Even in notoriously violent nations, the vast majority of elected officials will never face an assassination attempt; but, the bloody reality of world political history forces us to remember that ideas are not just the subject of robust discourse, they are the basis for armed conflict. When I asked you to run for office I was asking you to shoulder this burden, to accept this risk, to embrace this danger, and to do so willingly for the love of your country and out of a determination to lend your talents to improving its future. I should have been more explicit. I should have warned you even as I urged you.

As you know, I often take my own eight-year-old daughter to political events. She’s met her member of Congress, campaigned for her President and seen many political speeches. I am her teacher as I am yours and I have wanted her to see her democracy in action. I will continue to take her with me to public events, but I will never do so again without thinking of Christina-Taylor Green, the nine year-old who was senselessly murdered on Saturday.

I will keep assigning you to take on final projects that require you to call your senator. I will keep taking you on field trips to legislatures. I will continue assigning extra credit for attending lectures of those officials with whom you disagree politically. I have asked you to consider running for office. We have talked about the reasons, the challenges and the costs. I am still asking you to run. I am asking you to lend your voices, your talents and your time. I am asking you this in the shadow of bloodshed, of sadness, of terror. I am asking you, even now, to be brave enough to believe that we can be a better country.

Sincerely, Prof

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