Teen-agers talk about their country

Teen-age Americans from many sections of the country gathered here in late June for the annual conference of the National Association of Student Councils (NASC), held this year in Bethel Park, a suburb of Pittsburgh. The conference theme was leadership, and it's likely that many of these young men and women will eventually move into prominent positions in professions, in their communities, and, possibly, in politics. The Monitor asked some of them for their thoughts about their country -- its strengths, its priorities. A second article will record their views on the evolving American family.

``I went to Europe two years ago and saw lots of things that made me appreciate my own country -- the benefits and the system of government,'' says Todd Bartholomew, a burly high school senior from the farming community of Weiner, Ark., population 750. He's convinced that this country ``works,'' that day in and day out life is ``better and easier'' here.

What about the contradictions, like the persistence of racial discrimination in a country founded on the proposition that ``all men are created equal''?

Todd doesn't deny that inequities exist, but he thinks progress has been made. He looks, for example, at his own state, the site of some famous confrontations during the early days of the civil rights movement. People are getting along, he says, adding, with feeling, ``I'm not prejudiced at all.''

Todd's positive attitude toward his country is typical of that held by all the students interviewed in meeting rooms and during lunch breaks. Patriotism is indeed resurging, if these young Americans are any indication.

What's behind that patriotism?

``With me, it's my family, social life, activities, and freedom -- the opportunity to succeed to the best of one's ability,'' says Heather Eckart, a forthright young woman from Corydon, Ind. Heather's words are quickly seconded by four or five other students.

What sets the United States apart from other nations? Cara Beadling, a student at Bethel Park High School, host to the NASC gathering, emphasizes the conference itself. ``The way we can get together and do something like this,'' she says.

Like a few others here, Todd Bartholomew plans to translate his patriotic instincts into a political career at some point. ``Hopefully, I'm going to get into state politics,'' he says. He'd particularly like to help resolve the difficult agricultural issues facing Arkansas and other states in America's Midwestern heartland.

But doesn't politics have a way of corrupting even the most idealistic people? ``It's a system you have to follow,'' observes Shelley Newlin, from Sewickly, Pa., but she doesn't think that means all politicans are corrupt. Some students, however, pointed to what they felt was one highly corrupting political fact of life in the US. As Dayle Connor, another Bethel Park High School student, says: ``The more money you have, the easier it is to get in [political office].''

Pat Mixon, from Springfield, Ohio, is downright incensed about this. ``There's something we're really messing up on,'' he says, waving an arm to emphasize his point. He recalls asking one of the conference speakers, a particularly impressive one, why he didn't run for office. The man's answer, says Pat, grimacing with disgust, was, ``I don't have the money.''

Beyond the money issue, the motivation for wanting to get into politics is the central thing, according to Trey Hollis, a senior from Metaire, La. He couches his views with some skepticism bred by close contact with politicians during stints working as an intern in his state legislature. ``There are few completely honest and trustworthy politicians who are in it to help people,'' he says. But for him that's the key -- realizing that politics is a ``people business,'' not something you get into to serve yourself.

What about the relation between the US and the rest of the world? Tom Lin from Salt Lake City, a page for Sen. Jake Garn (R) of Utah, notes that America still serves as a model for much of the world. He was struck by this as he listened to Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's recent speech before Congress. ``Lots of countries would like to follow the US's example,'' he asserts.

But isn't this country's dominant strength, particularly its military might, intimidating to much of the rest of the world?

``I have as many reservations about war as anyone else,'' says Kurt Alme, a senior from Miles City, Mont. However, he continues, the use of military strength has its place. He explains that, in his view, people have a right to fight for freedom, and that the US has a responsibility to help. The ``contras'' in Nicaragua are a case in point, he says.

And the threat of nuclear war, what about that? ``I think it's terrifying,'' says Shelley Newlin, ``but it's necessary to have the weapons.''

Returning to base-rock domestic concerns, ``Is freedom of expression threatened today by government censorship?''

Pat Mixon sees a couple of delicate issues here. First, government secrecy -- how to balance a need for confidentiality with the public's need to be informed. He's convinced the country has been hurt over the years by the disclosure of classified information.

But it's ``a hard line to draw,'' observes Mark Strickland, a cohort of Pat's from Springfield, Ohio. Don't forget the controversy that arose from President Richard Nixon's withholding of information about bombing raids on Cambodia during the Vietnam war, he says.

And how about possible censorship of textbooks and other materials in the schools, as suggested in the recent, renewed attacks on Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn by black educators? ``I don't think Huckleberry Finn should be trimmed or edited in any way,'' says Pat, who is himself black. ``It just reflects those times. To say it shouldn't makes no sense. It's part of our heritage.''

Another current issue springing from the First Amendment's guarantees of free expression and free exercise of religion is school prayer. Concerns in this area can be carried to extremes, notes Dayle Connor. ``We weren't allowed to sing anything with sectarian meaning at Christmas,'' she recalls, adding that ``Christmas is a part of our lives -- you can't take Christmas out of Christmas.'' But that doesn't mean that she's for prayer in the schools.

``If you want to pray, there's time, but religion shouldn't be pushed on anyone,'' in her view. Dayle's school has a ``moment of silence'' each morning, but the students don't take it seriously, she says. From her observations, it's mainly a time for the public address system announcers ``to shuffle their papers.''

And the country's priorities, what should they be? Kurt Alme strikes a note that reverberates among many of his peers. The most important thing for the country, he says, is ``right here [at this conference].'' The top priority, he affirms, should be to reach people with concepts of leadership and good government ``while they're young.''

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