Obama, DeLay visits engage Madison's principles

From: Public Afairs


When James Madison was sworn in as president two centuries ago, he knew he'd be leading a country where differing opinions were inevitable.

"As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed," he wrote.
Knowledge, he believed, was the key not only to informing those opinions, but also to ensuring their protection.

Now, as the nation again prepares to choose its leader, Madison's own philosophy continues to guide the university that bears his name in its mission to prepare students to be educated and enlightened citizens.

When presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama held a rally at James Madison University on Oct. 28, the school embraced it not only as an opportunity for students to learn about him, but also to engage a dialogue across the ideological spectrum.

The visit came on the heels of a speech by former U.S. House of Representatives Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay sponsored by the JMU College Republicans and Madison Political Affairs Club on Oct. 27. The College Republicans also held a counter-rally for Sen. John McCain's candidacy coinciding with Obama's rally.

"It's great when you get to hear different ideas and listen to different people. I think JMU's better than most universities about that because we had no problems bringing DeLay in, we had no problems organizing our counter-rally," said Kevin Bolling, chairman of the JMU College Republicans. "I think the more voices you hear from both sides, the better."

For young people still new to the political scene, witnessing political history as it happens is a unique opportunity.

"We haven't had this opportunity in the past. It puts JMU on the map as a significant forum for political figures to express their views," said Dr. Bob Roberts, a professor of political science at JMU. "It's a very different environment for students. They're getting to see something they've never seen before."

Hosting the events helps foster discussion that people in the community normally might be hesitant to engage, Roberts said. For students who are unsure about their own views and for professors who strive to encourage discussion without imposing ideological biases, such events provide a forum for expression with a level of freedom and comfort.

"There's a delicate line faculty walk in bringing politics into the classroom," Roberts said. "Universities have a reputation of being liberal, and that creates a problem."

JMU's political landscape not only bucks that reputation, but is near ideal for encouraging inclusive student discussion. A survey of JMU students last year found that 35 percent identified themselves as liberal, 30 percent as conservative and 35 percent middle-of-the-road.

The events also gave students the chance to apply the skills and knowledge they've gained in classes at the highest level.

Rebecca Schneider, a junior studying print journalism in the School of Media Arts and Design and managing editor of JMU's yearbook, "The Bluestone," joined correspondents from major media outlets throughout the world in the Obama rally's press pit.

"It's the first time we've come in contact with professional press people. This is something I've never seen before," Schneider said. "A lot of us are here because we have assignments [for class]. It really helps you. This is what we're going to be doing when we graduate."

"It's a fabulous opportunity to get some hands-on experience," said Sarah Chair, a fellow junior in the SMAD and a Bluestone writer. "It's chaotic, but it's amazing to be part of."

Even students who are too young to vote jumped at the chance to engage themselves in the political dialogue. Local high-school students were among several people lined up as early as 7 a.m. for the late-afternoon Obama event.

Molly Anderson, a 17-year-old senior at Harrisonburg High School, said she began following the election for school media projects but now expects her experiences to remain with her the rest of her life.

"I think it's a good thing because a lot of people aren't clear on the issues and they're voting because of what someone told them once or because of something they've just grown up with, and I think everyone should just take their own view of it," Anderson said while in line for the Obama rally. "It's a huge deal. He very well could be our next president. That's history."

The events attracted participants from all corners of the area.
"The whole community—kids, adults, people with disabilities, babies—are here," Schneider said, noting that the impetus for change lies with the students of today.

"It's our generation that's going to make the difference," she said.

David McKinney, president of the JMU College Democrats, said he hoped students' enthusiasm wouldn't end with the rally but would spark a prolonged interest in engaging the political process.

"People are realizing that there are decisions being made that are going to affect our children, their children. It's making them take a look," McKinney said. "Having him come to campus, people see that and it gets them even more involved."

Madison was charged with making choices to lead the nation through trying times of economic distress, international strife and, ultimately, war. And although the fourth president has long since passed, his successor in this election will encounter similar issues and surely a host of others. But it's the students who follow his principles who will limit the effects of that unrest, differences of opinion aside.

"Learned Institutions ought to be favorite objects with every free people. They throw that light over the public mind which is the best security against crafty and dangerous encroachments on the public liberty," Madison wrote. "Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives."