WOSTER: We are the ones responsible for open government
I'm going to try to apply an experience from my freshman year of college to Sunshine Week, the annual time set aside in the news world to remind citizens of the importance of open government and a free press.
This is the final day of this year's Sunshine Week, although open government must be nurtured, encouraged and applauded every day of the year. Citizens in a democracy need to know what their government is doing if they are to make reasoned judgments on issues, programs and policies. Citizens deserve to know. They have a right to know. And so, Sunshine Week is a reminder.
In the fall of 1962, I landed on the campus of the Jesuit-run Creighton University in Omaha. Picture a kid from small-town South Dakota stepping into a world of classmates with prep school backgrounds from places like Denver, Chicago and New York City, places I could find on a map but had never seen in person. This small-town kid spent a lot of time worrying whether he could survive on that campus, whether he was smart enough to function among those hot-shot preppies.
Somehow, I got to skip freshman theology and go straight into philosophy with a few other freshmen and several sophomores. I hadn't known philosophy courses existed, but here I was, listening to a lecture by a white-haired priest with the bearing of a French nobleman. I remember picking up the textbook and discovering he had written it. He was brilliant and entertaining and did all the heavy lifting in the class. The first test? I studied the book, listened and took notes and got a good grade. Hey, I thought, this isn't bad. I got an A for the semester.
My second semester philosophy instructor was a lay person, a tall, angular man with an Honest Abe face, thick glasses and a way of looking at the ceiling and pursing his lips as he considered comments from his students. I don't recall a textbook. Instead, the first day of class we received a sheet of paper filled with the titles of books he expected us to read during the semester. We did that on our own time, too, because his lecture periods were for conversations about human nature, life, behavior and you know, philosophy.
I kind of panicked. I'd never been asked to simply read, think and respond. I discovered, though that in this class, most answers were well received, so long as they were offered thoughtfully, with clarity and supporting reasoning and evidence. That's where all that reading came in. The course took work, considerable worry and a ton of time in the library. I got a C. It messed up my first year GPA a bit, but I really, really earned that grade. I learned a bit about learning and thinking and reasoning, too. And I figured out that I was responsible for my education. My philosophy instructor had much to offer, but he made it clear he didn't expect me to sit back and let him do the work.
How does that fit with Sunshine Week? Here's how:
Yes, open government puts a burden on elected and appointed officials in public positions. They answer to the people. They have a responsibility to make sure the public knows what's going on. I've never quite understood why some elected or appointed officials suddenly start to think the people who chose them can no longer be trusted. Many of them don't think that, but a fair number do. They need to be reminded that isn't how it works.
But citizens don't get a free ride in open government, not by a long shot, not in a democracy. We can't let the government do all the work. Like the kid in second-semester philosophy, we are responsible for our democracy, for open government. We're the ones who need to hit the books, seek out information on government actions, thoughtfully form positions and opinions, talk with others and listen to opposing ideas. We're responsible for the work, worry and library time necessary to keep government open.
Democracy's reading list is long. For my money, it starts with newspapers and plenty of them.