Williamsburg, Va. — Listening to today's young leaders, one begins to suspect they may be an overlooked national asset.
When this reporter had the opportunity to attend a student leadership conference along with 102 outstanding high school seniors screened and selected from a pool of more than 300,000 of their peers nationwide, he went willingly, and wonderingly. Were these young people ready to take on the problems facing our American democracy today?
Sixty young men and 42 young women, two students from each state and the District of Columbia, met for four days at Colonial Williamsburg to consider the challenges they believe they will face when they hold positions of leadership in the 21st century.
The event that brought such an outstanding cross-section of young people together is the Century III Leaders program.
Century III (for America's third century) is sponsored by the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP)and is funded by the Shell Oil Company.
Students who participate compete at the individual, school, and state level to reach the national conference. They are judged on the basis of school and community involvement, current events test scores, and a written projection in which they identify a problem facing America and propose solutions to it. A $1, 500 scholarship plus all expenses to and from Williamsburg go to winners. What problems do these young leaders expect to face?
''Although scholarships are an important part of the program'' Scott Thomson, NASSP executive director explains, ''more important is the opportunity it provides these emerging leaders to exchange ideas about the nation's future challenges and what should be done to meet them.''
There are six major areas the student leaders feel they will have to deal with when they are adults. They also feel any solutions must be long-term ones and that regardless of the American propensity to demand quick, immediate answers, there is no room for short-term thinking by leaders.
* Education: Can a democratic educational system produce effective leaders for the 21st century? (Contrary to the prevailing mood of pessimism about America's schools, all involved with Century III agreed these students were an example of what's best about our education system.)
* Changing American social values: What challenges will changing social vaues present to leaders in the 21st century? What will the American family look like?
* Technology and values: What judgments will leaders need to make about the importance of technology on traditional values? (For example, embryonic implantation is just one of a whole host of brave new world realities with which they must deal.)
* Energy and environment: Can leaders devise methods that balance our energy requirements with our environmental concerns?
* Individual rights and social needs: How should leaders in the 21st century cope with a need to protect individual rights and maintain social order? Should there be a universal draft?
* America's world role: What factors should America's leaders consider with regard to the world role of the United States in the next century?
The discussions, the questions, and the tentative answers posed by the students in dealing with these problems testify to a generation readying itself for the tasks of leadership.
A look at some specific issues.
What was most encouraging to this reporter, and cause for much optimism, was the acuity, high ethical standards, and mature vision students brought to bear in their discussions on a variety of issues, and in particular the role of the mass-media in a democracy.
It must be remembered that these are individuals who grew up in the ''electronic surround'' of present day media-America. They were teethed on TV images of Vietnam; they learned their elementary school civic lessons under the cloud of Watergate.
The revolution in computerized information systems, evening network news, satellite and cable TV hookups must produce a ''society-controlled media, rather than a media-controlled society,'' one of their joint resolutions states.
Charles Kuralt of CBS ''On the Road'' fame spoke to them about the media. A sampling of the questions they asked Mr. Kuralt gives a glimpse of the sophistication with which they view its role:
''What is CBS doing about the technique of 'purposeful agitation' the nightly network news stations create; about the fact that something wrong must be shown every night and is rarely balanced with the perspective of how many right things occur in a given day; what is the networks' responsibility on unnamed sources and leaks; about docudramas that are more concerned about viewer ratings than objectivity; about showing a cross-section of 'real people,' and not people selected to fit a particular point of view on an issue that would bias the presentation under the guise of being representative?''
The challenge of making the microcomputer revolution ''computer friendly,'' and of personalizing an increasingly impersonal world due to techonology, was also a primary concern.
Another focus was on how the omnipresent computer should be kept universal yet personally private. No one wanted to roll back the clock. All wanted to reap the benefits a computerized society would provide. But the issue of electronic snooping and its potential for creating a 1984 Orwellian world is something they may live in, not just read about.
On matters of energy and environment their hopes for a solution were twofold. First, students passed resolutions calling for a regional approach to meeting energy needs; and second, a greater reliance on the private sector with tax incentives and closer cooperation between industry and researchers at the nation's leading universities.
Social security takes on a very different perspective when viewed through the eyes of those who will be paying into it for the next 40 years. Much concern about the solvency of the system was reflected in the discussion about the original reason for social security.
For the students who gathered at Williamsburg it was obvious that it was not possible for them to discuss the world from a national or isolationist viewpoint. For them - a global, single-planet view is a given.
They felt a direct responsibility for domestic US decisions having an impact on the world. They believe our nation's leaders must be conscious of what this impact is, especially in third-world countries caught in a squeeze between the two superpowers. The debates on matters of foreign policy revolved around the tension between providing for economic development and military assistance.
On this matter, a reenactment of the debate in the historic Virginia House of Burgesses about ''An act for speedily recruiting the Virginia regiment on the Continental establishment,''--the issue of a draft--proved as timely today as it must have to the nation's Founding Fathers.
Students were not just debating a historically removed subject, but one that strikes at the heart of what it means to be a citizen in a democracy. (Of note: If there were a need for a military draft today, and if these students speak for the majority, there would be no serious oppostition to women being considered equally with men.) How the students developed their leadership qualities
The four common ingredients most often mentioned by students to characterize what shaped their leadership ability are: the influence of parents; the influence of a special teacher; participation and holding office in their school's student government; participation in their school's speech and debate program.
Scott Payant of Oklahoma City spoke for many of the students when he said, ''I always listen to my parents, especially my father, and I really respect them for the way they raised me. I know I'm here because of them.''
This sentiment is echoed by Hal Dasinger of Billings, Mont., about a special teacher who had a great impact on his life when he recalls that ''it was a teacher who had a special influence on me, and he had it at the time I was ready to be influenced. The influence will last a lifetime.''
For Karen Johannes of Charleston, S.C.: ''Being president of (the high school) student government, I gained confidence in myself,'' she says. ''And I know now that I can have an effect on the society I live in. I want to do something to really make my life and the lives of others better. All of us here feel this, that's why we're here.''
''I really learned how to communicate by being in speech and debate,'' says Natalie Hanlon of Englewood, Colo., ''and it's amazing how by starting with throwing out an idea I can get to the point where I'll write down a 150-word recommendation as a statement of policy. Many of us have had this experience through our school's forensic program.'' It wasn't all serious
Lest all this sound too serious, bear in mind the discussions were conducted by high school students.
One instance of youthful levity occurred in the House of Burgesses conscription debate. To lend an aura of authenticity, all participants were to assume roles from Colonial Virginia--where no women would have participated in the debate. Shelley Cline from Bayard, N.M., arguing for a draft, brought down the house when she passionately called on her fellow ''sons of liberty to defend their wives, their homes, their children and their sacred honor as gentlemen.''
Paul O'Brien, assuming the posture of a shrewd Yankee from Boston, told his fellow delegates from Colonial Virginia that as a resident of ''Boston County, Virginia,'' the draft was inimical to the spirit of free men, and that they should vote for George McGovern.
Certainly one of the more imaginative explanations of international problems was Christopher Roy's amoeba theory of world affairs. This Vermonter depicted on a sketch pad the United States and the Soviet Union as two giant amoeba sprawled out over the world geopolitical map trying to digest loose zygotes (nonaligned nations) and having a tough time of it in Central America and Afghanistan.
Perhaps the most memorable experience for the students was the two-hour no-holds-barred question and answer session with John Bookout, president of Shell Oil Company. The students came away with a firsthand sense of just how complex are the issues facing a corporate leader.
Questions addressed to Mr. Bookout ranged from ''I heard Shell Oil is exploiting the Navajos by underpaying them for oil on their reservation'' to the more personal one of, ''At the end of the day, when you go home, are you happy, I mean you run one of the biggest companies in the world and you're a powerful man, but are you happy, are you peaceful?''
Mr. Bookout's answer to the first, ''We have no interests on the Navajo reservation, it must be . . . oil.'' brought laughter. His answer to the second, tantamount to sharing his philosophy of life and what gives him fulfillment, garnered a degree of respect from the students the young are so capable of giving. Brian Benoit, from Dover, N.H., summed up what the students felt when he said, ''I can't get over how approachable and direct he was.''
For this reporter, it seems appropriate to paraphrase the Nobel Prize acceptance speech of author William Faulkner by saying that under the future direction of such young people the nation, ''shall not only endure, it shall prevail.''