Two evenings ago my wife and I had the privilege of participating in a private dinner at Union University (TN), where I serve as a visiting professor. The main attraction was the guest of honor, former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates. Currently he serves as Chancellor of the second oldest institution of higher education in the country, The College of William and Mary.
In the Q & A session that followed dinner, Secretary Gates answered questions about everything from Chinese vs United States GDP to Afghanistan to the differences between the eight presidents he has served. In all of his responses there was a consistent theme: the importance of character in leadership. The best question, in my estimation as an educator, was “who were the most important influences in your life?” He named a number of them, but the one that stood out was “the tough teachers who actually expected a lot of me as a student.”
Now, how many of those really hard teachers that pushed him to his potential saw into his future and thought “huh, this guy could really become something someday?” My guess is probably at least one. That was a good check for me—how much do I really expect of my students, and even my own kids, on a consistent basis? How much do we as a culture actually expect of our high school and college students? Do our actions and the responsibilities we place on them demonstrate that we really believe in them, and that we really think they can carry the cultural freight for the next 30 years and seek to restore a meaningful sense of the common good?