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January 1, 2014

Ever to excel: Are there any adults in the house?

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 

—1 Corinthians 13:11

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we become adults and what it takes, really, to claim that title. How is it, for instance, that so many can make the transition from idealistic university graduate to adult with principles, honor and, yes, even idealism intact, and so many cannot?

My wife Kathy’s and my youngest son, Matt, is now a student at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, a distinguished institution of learning that celebrated its 600th anniversary last year. It is the third-oldest English-speaking university in the world. The occasion was marked in part with a short film mellifluously narrated by Sir Sean Connery describing St. Andrews’ distinguished history and the invaluable intellectual and moral values it is dedicated to instilling in its students. 

Ever to excel” is the university motto, a phrase from the sixth book of Homer’s Iliad. The full command: “Ever to excel, to do better than others, and to bring glory to your forebears.”

I sat in that dark theater and marveled at the gift our son was hopefully receiving from this great university: high intellectual standards, respect for his colleagues, and a moral compass that would not permit lying, cheating or any other form of dishonesty. Fortunately, this gift is available to the young adults who attend all of our institutions of higher learning. All have a motto urging their students to excellence. All have codes of honor that summon us to our higher selves. “We will not lie, steal or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does.”

It is not only our great military academies that take these commands extremely seriously. They are, after all, the bedrock of what it is to be an adult—along with the abilities to listen to and fairly evaluate other points of view; to be patient, compassionate and flexible; and to distinguish between rational and emotional thinking. 

In addition, a great institution of higher learning offers its students the opportunity to learn rigorous thinking, to express themselves intelligently, to understand what it is to behave maturely and with integrity, and to respect knowledge and the acquisition of it.  

Ninety-five percent of our elected politicians in Washington graduated from a college or university. I would bet that an equally high percentage decided to seek public office because they believed in all of the principles described above. And yet, today, those who retain those principles do not exist in sufficient numbers to run the government of the United States of America.

The president’s version of leadership is to mislead the American people about the impact of his signature health care law, mismanage it into disaster, and all the while ignore his obligation to lead from the front and bring the nation together. This Congress’ version of exercising its sacred duty to serve the people is to shut government down, to bring the economy to the brink of default and financial catastrophe, and to nearly cast this great country into the ranks of deadbeat nations.  

This could not happen if there were real adults among them. A few in the Senate and House declared it was time for the adults to begin running things. But none emerged to do so. The president locked himself in his office and refused to come out. Because they don’t like each other? Many of the Founding Fathers did not like each other. Profoundly. But they forged the principles of a great nation. They answered their sacred calling. 

Worse still, the shameful, disgraceful political performance we have been subjected to seems only to continue. Lying. Intellectual dishonesty. These men and women have betrayed not only their obligation to this country to serve honorably, fairly and with distinction. They have betrayed the principles on which their educations were founded. 

There is still an opportunity for Congress and the president to “put away childish things” and be adults. We must insist they do so. And if they do not, we must throw them out of office.