Roger Barbee: ‘Apathy is the bane of democracy’

Roger Barbee

No, this article is not about anything done in the seventh grade. Yet, as I have pondered writing it for the past several days, I have worried that it may read much like one of those gosh-awful reports we all waddled through so long ago. Be that as it may, here goes.

There is an interesting and thought-provoking article in the January 2015 issue of the Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative Magazine written by Charles Lee, the past president of Mississippi State University and the past interim town manager for Clarksville, Virginia. His article is titled “The Future of Small Towns,” and as I read it, his wise insights reminded me of our small towns in the valley and our local counties. His words encourage me for our small towns and surrounding areas.

Lee warns in the beginning of his article that, “Apathy is the bane of democracy,” and he follows that with 14 general observations about small towns — and for me counties such as ours. When I read his words concerning apathy and democracy, I was reminded of the story about Benjamin Franklin when he exited from the last meeting where the Founding Fathers had hammered out our Constitution. The wife of the mayor of Philadelphia asked him, “What type of government have you given us, Mr. Franklin?” The wise man replied, “A republic — if you can keep it, Madam.” Lee, like Franklin, knows that unless citizens are involved in government, then democracy is doomed. It is then, however, that Lee lists his 14 general observations concerning small towns:

• Each town must have a strong educational system that is seen as strong by people from outside. It is obvious that employees of any education system will spout its worth. But Lee asks us to consider what others think of our educational system.

• Each town must fight apathy and resistance to change. Yes, it is easier to grumble that “It’s the way it is,” or scream, “But it’s the way we have always done it.” Lee points out that it will take more than funerals to subdue these hindrances to real growth.

• Lee encourages small towns not to lower expectations and let this mind-set become the normal. Each small town has products that are of value.

• A small town that brags about having low taxes is on a spiral to the bottom. Having the lowest taxes is a mark of a non-competitive town with a low quality of life level.

• A small town with a higher level of educated citizens has more stimulus and its quality of life is improved.

• Retirees are a boon to small towns. They spend most of their money locally and do not require as much from the local tax base, and they bring valuable skills to their towns.

In the six cited observations, I obviously included my favorites, but all of his 14  observations have insight and value. Yes, my favorites express some of my own bias, but I think they carry an important message. As I become more involved in Shenandoah County, I hear more and more citizens complain about elected leadership. Yet, I ask each of them how they express their views.

Last fall I attended an open meeting where the two elected School Board members from the central campus would answer questions. It was a good time to meet both of them and hear their views on an array of educational topics. While I did not take a count of those attending, I dare say that there were more folks from the Woodstock offices of school Superintendent Jeremy Raley than concerned parents. I came away saddened that so few citizens or parents cared enough about our educational system to attend and meet their elected School Board members. To quote Lee once more, “Apathy is the bane of democracy.”

I encourage all readers to read Lee’s article, which can be found online, in your local library, or I will make you a copy of mine — just ask me. This small column can’t do Lee’s words, written in such a concerned and caring manner, justice. (I told you I felt like this was a seventh grade book report.) Please get a copy of the article, read it, share it with others, and let us all take his words to action.

Roger Barbee is a retired educator who lives in Edinburg with his wife Mary Ann, four dogs and five cats. Email him at red-hill@shentel.net.