In recent times, the issues of voice and declining civility have come to the forefront of American politics. In Falmouth, unfortunately, it’s no different.
We need rational debate more than spiteful argument as we look towards our future. With that in mind, one of the central components of education is that of civic engagement; the ability to articulate a point with elegance and civility are part of the backbone of a democratic society.
Last week, public scrutiny and attention was placed on a young man’s articulate high school opinion piece, written at the request of his editor, about an issue facing the Falmouth community. Our reaction? We leaped to questions of parental influence. We questioned his independence and insulted his intelligence. We speculated about conspiracies and hidden political agendas by drawing connections to neighbors and acquaintances.
We failed to recognize that this piece is, no more, no less, an opinion piece intended not for public consumption, but rather that of students; a piece that states a personal opinion, no more or less valid than yours or mine, based on information sought out by a student.
Where is the recognition that a teenager was willing to take the time to research this topic? Why are we not impressed that he has a well-developed command of language for his age? Where is the encouragement to improve from a proactive standpoint? Where is the discussion as to how we can celebrate student voice and student engagement? The tone of our public discourse over this article only serves to stifle that engagement and voice.
Failure to allow a citizen or even an elected official to respond in the student newspaper is not a restriction on freedom of speech. This paper provides a unique forum for students to reach students. When I reflect on my time in high school, it was hard enough speaking my opinion to my peers, let alone to adults. We need to consider how our actions as adults impact the motivations and aspirations of our community’s children.
I am a product of Falmouth, of student engagement and voice. I wrote for the school paper, served three years in student government, and two years as a representative to the School Board. Without those venues, a notably shy and reserved student would never have run for elected office at age 22. The unique and safe qualities those forums offered allowed me to grow and serve my community. I needed it and so do your children, more than ever. Make this about advancing education and not political alliances.
Student voice and engagement are an intricate part of the continual development of a school system. They allow us to evaluate our services from the view of our most informed constituents, our students. We must encourage student voice and engagement, not discourage those willing to express an opinion. We must promote success and turn failures into learning experiences by offering constructive comments. We must foster leadership and dedication to serve. We must allow students to be held accountable by their peers. We must allow them to gain experience, build confidence and care about their community.
One day, not too far from now, our students will be the leaders of tomorrow, with our future in their hands. Let us celebrate, respect and welcome student voice with civility and appreciation for what it is.
Christopher B. Murry Jr. is a Falmouth School Board member and a 2006 graduate of Falmouth High School, where he was a student representative to the School Board and a writer for the student newspaper, The Mast.