It’s not every day a former presidential hopeful stops by your high school, just to chat.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who ran for president in 2004, did just that on Monday, March 31. At Milton High School senior Ryan Nichols’ invitation, Dean visited with the schools’ Advanced Placement Government and Politics class, covering his bid for the executive branch and how the Internet empowers political change.
“It always comes back to how cool Vermont is in that way,” said AP gov teacher, Jason Gorczyk, whose father was corrections commissioner under Dean. “If you were California, you would not be able to sit down with the governor unless maybe your school was in Sacramento.”
But Dean did take a seat, on the stage in the MHS auditorium. He spoke for a good 90 minutes, taking questions from students at the end.
Dean, most recently chairman of the Democratic National Committee, reflected that his presidential campaign marked the first time youth used politics as a vehicle for change.
“The campaign was really a movement to change the country,” he said. “It was fueled by people your age … and by this enormous world wide web” that exposed them to different cultures.
Four years later, Dean said, the youth of America elected the nation’s first multicultural president, Barack Obama. Dean’s childhood was markedly different. He’d never gone to school with a black person, and of course, he didn’t have Internet access. He and friends protested the Vietnam War, but any change came slowly.
Today, there are tools like Change.org, an online petition platform that citizens have levied to force change, even practices at big banks, Dean said.
Abroad, revolutions have started on Twitter, and domestically, the Internet stopped the passage of the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA. Americans sent millions of emails to Congress, and popular sites like Google, YouTube and Wikipedia blacked out their services in protest.
The dissent was notable since it prevented a vote on one of very few bipartisan bills that session, Dean said.
“You did that; the Internet community did that,” he said. “You are now able as an individual citizen to have an influence on the political process that our generation could have only dreamed to have.”
Dean believes change can come from the bottom up, but the issue is sustaining that grassroots groundswell, especially when politics seem to be less relevant. In a follow-up, however, Dean said he doesn’t buy the notion that Gen Y is disengaged.
“It always seems that way because the majority of a generation is lazy; it just takes 15 or so percent of activists” to make a difference, he said.
But institutions – like banks, churches, corporations – resist change. That’s why Vermonters prefer small schools and the local control that comes with them, Dean said, and he thinks it should stay that way.
Still, he urged students to think of ways to integrate their great ideas into resistant systems so they can be replicated – while keeping with the Internet’s ad hoc nature.
“That’s the big dilemma of your generation,” he said. “I hope I live to 150 so I can see how you do it.”
After applause, students quizzed the former governor. Ryan Nichols asked his guest about student loans and if crushing debt will force students to move abroad.
Dean recognized that as a major problem and cautioned the students, many juniors and seniors, from taking on debt while they’re still learning what they don’t want to do in life.
Another student asked Dean’s opinion about the 2010 Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission Supreme Court ruling that gave First Amendment protection to campaign contributions from corporations and unions.
Dean said he’s wholly opposed to the ruling, calling it one of the most damaging in the country’s history, and one that damages youth’s faith in government. But he still believes this generation can change it.
Laura Dickinson asked about youth flight from Vermont. Dean said it’s “hooey” to worry about such things. He encouraged Vermont teens to leave, making room for out-of-staters to come here. He also spoke positively of studying abroad or joining Peace Corps.
Dean also covered his political agendas while in office, which included conservation, reducing prison populations and instituting universal healthcare.
Dean said the Milton students asked great questions, and he was happy to come visit, something he doesn’t get to do often.
“It’s much more important to hear what they’re interested in than it is for me to talk,” he said. “If you want to help kids learn, you have to do it on their territory.”
Gorczyk was pleased, saying Dean’s visit will be hard to top. The class has met Vermont Supreme Court Justice John Dooley and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders in the past.
The encounters make “everything relevant and easy for people to grasp,” Gorczyk said. “It helps them understand something abstract like government.”