Monday, February 18, 2013

RICHARD GREENE: Lessons from my students and a recounting of blessings

There are recurring, almost predictable, reminders of the exceptional country we are privileged to share that happens inside the classes I teach at UT Arlington’s graduate program in the School of Urban and Public Affairs.

Most of the time these incidences involve international students – young adults who are here to learn and then return to their homeland with a determination to improve the quality of life for their fellow countrymen.

The remarkable thing about this experience is that it is about everyday things we take for granted. When questions like these arise, it also often causes American students to react. Sometimes they express surprise, and other times it moves them to recount their blessings.

In all my classes, regardless of the course topic, I use part of the first class session to review the basics of the form and structure of our government. That’s because the application of the course material in real life is possible to a great extent because of our freedom -- freedom that has been deliberately created by the most remarkable design of self-government in all human history and for which an awful price has been paid to preserve.

The most difficult part of our system to fully grasp by many students from foreign lands is the limitation on the powers of the president that they didn’t realize existed.

They see our president as the most powerful person on earth and can’t imagine that he isn’t in total control of the people of the United States. They assume he is, and that he rules without interference from anyone or anything.

When they discover the genius of our system that deliberately restricts his power so that he cannot behave like a monarch, or a dictator, or as an absolute ruler, they are often disbelieving. Tyranny aside, they just can’t relate to such limitations on the president of the world’s greatest democracy.

I’ve held after-class discussions to answer questions about our system of three separate but equal branches of our national government. We talk about the legislative branch where the laws are made and funding of the work of the government is authorized.

Students discover that the president has no power to simply declare a law into being. They learn he does not have the key to the public treasury to spend as he wishes.

I explain that the judicial branch is the arbiter of disputes within the government where the ultimate judgment is made on the test of whether some action of the government is authorized by our Constitution or not.

That judges have the power to strike down an action of the president is a realization that takes a while to develop in their minds.

But when this all sinks in, the reaction is almost universal. They smile.

As the semester progresses, other things happen that prompt me to have a moment of sober reflection on our collective good fortune in the land where opportunity for the betterment of life has been seized and multiplied.

Once, when discussing our nation’s energy policy and talking about the debate over the use of our natural resources being all about sustainability and wise decision-making, I acknowledged the raised hand of a brown skinned young man from a country with a name I cannot pronounce.

He explained that his community’s discussion was all about how to obtain electricity that lasted more than two hours a day. He described that those two hours occurred randomly and without notice once in a 24-hour period.

So, if the lights came on at 3 a.m., everybody interrupted their sleep and sprang into action doing the things that required electrical power around the home and hoped they would get it finished before it went dark again.

Another student once commented, during my discussion about the green roof experiment atop the UT Arlington science building, that his community had perfected that practice long ago.

He told us that all the homes where he lived had mud roofs and could grow all manner and kind of plants ranging from ordinary grass to the food they needed.

And then there was the engineering student who talked about his mission in life to learn about the methods of the management of human waste. His plan was to return to his home country with that knowledge and find a way to develop an even rudimentary waste disposal system.

His passion was driven by his desire to bring change so that so many children would not die in their early years of life from disease borne by unsanitary conditions. He described the constant presence of sewage in the streets of his town.

When he asked how we Americans had solved this problem, I explained the process of adopting laws, innovating methods and developing technology that led to longer, healthier lives for the people of our country.

His sad response was simply that none of that was possible where he lived because the totalitarian ruler of his country controlled all of that. The student’s hope was that if he found a way to make things better without his government’s approval that he would not get arrested.

The next time I flushed the toilet after that discussion, I didn’t just assume it worked the way it did because that was what was supposed to happen.

Richard Greene is a former Arlington mayor, served as an appointee of Pres. George W. Bush as Regional Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and currently is an adjunct professor in UT Arlington’s Graduate School of Urban and Public Affairs.

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