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Clinton's Lesson on Citizenship

Potomac School students celebrate $12 million donation by holding question and answer session with former President Bill Clinton.

According to former President William Jefferson Clinton, there are five questions that every American citizen should be able to answer.

“You don’t have to agree with me — heck I’m not campaigning for anything right now — but you should be able to answer all of them,” said Clinton, as he addressed students, faculty and parents at The Potomac School in McLean on Wednesday, May 2.

Clinton shared those five questions — and his own personal answers — with The Potomac School community last week, as part of a “Building Enlightened Leadership” academic dialogue with students in grades 8-12. The dialogue was part of an overall celebration of the formal dedication of the new upper school facility, which was completed in September 2006. The celebration was centered around the official mission of The Potomac School, thus, each division of the school focused on a particular facet of that mission. According to the school’s office of communications, activities ranged from a stream clean-up to discussion of the First Amendment, to art sculpture, and many of the activities also spanned different grade levels.

The upper school facility features new classrooms and labs, a 4,750-square-foot library, a three-story “Crossroads” gathering place, a media center, a Black Box Theater and a college-style tiered classroom. The upper school facility is one component of The Potomac School’s master plan, which also includes a new lower school and an endowment for financial aid and faculty support.

To fund the various components of the school’s master plan, the Campaign for Potomac’s Future has been fund-raising to meet its projected goal of $50 million. After a recent $12 million donation from Potomac parents Rich and Chris Fairbank, the Campaign for Potomac’s Future has now reached 80 percent of that $50 million goal. The Fairbank’s contribution is the largest single donation ever gifted to the school.

“We are grateful to have this opportunity to help Potomac,” said Rich Fairbank, who is CEO of Capital One. “Chris and I hope that the building of the new lower school will enable generations of children to benefit from Potomac’s extraordinary culture of excellence and compassion.”

The Potomac School has had a long-standing relationship with the Fairbanks family, as six of the Fairbanks’ children are either alumni or students at the school. Clinton got involved in the dedication at the request of his friends Terry and Dorothy McAuliffe, as the couple has children currently enrolled in the school, and Dorothy McAuliffe is chairwoman of the school’s board.

BEFORE COMMENCING the academic dialogue with Potomac students, Clinton discussed the five questions that he believes every American citizen should be able to answer.

“The first question is, what is the fundamental nature of the 21st century world?” said Clinton. “Most people say globalization, but I think that’s inadequate — I prefer the term interdependence.”

Clinton said that in today’s “interdependent” world “you can’t get away from each other — divorce is not an option.”

“The second question is, is it a good or bad thing?” said Clinton. “My answer is, both.”

The former president went on to say that interdependence is beneficial for those in the privileged classes of society — such as the students at The Potomac School. However, he said he believes it is not so good for the less fortunate.

“It’s been really tough for about half the people in this world, which brings me to the third question, which is how do we change?” said Clinton. “The short answer is smaller integrated communities.”

Clinton noted that there is no question that something must be done to deal with the fact that the modern world is “completely unsustainable.”

“By 2050, there will be 9 billion people on earth, and almost all of them are projected to live in countries that cannot support them today,” said Clinton.

His fourth question is “OK, sounds good, now how do we get there?” Clinton said that while he firmly believes it is necessary to have a good security policy to fight off enemies, it is just as important to have a strategy for creating partnerships and increasing friends and allies.

“You can’t kill, jail or occupy everybody that’s against you,” said Clinton. “You’ve got to have a second leg to your strategy, and that involves diplomacy … it is much, much cheaper to make friends than it is to make war — you should always be prepared for war — but we have to have security, diplomacy and partners, and we have to engage in relentless home improvement … we have to keep getting better at home.”

Clinton’s fifth and final question is “who is supposed to do all of this?”

“The answer is we all are,” said Clinton. “All of us can do things, and because we can, we should.”

FOLLOWING HIS REMARKS, Clinton opened up the floor for student questions, the majority of which asked for the former president’s advice on how to handle current global issues such as AIDS, energy management, genocide in Darfur and animosity between various religions.

One student asked the former president to share his thoughts on the American push to spread democracy to other countries.

“I like democracy great, but I like it better when my side wins,” joked Clinton. “I think over the long run, anything you can do to give people power over their own destiny is a good thing, but look at us — we’ve been doing this for 200 years, and we still don’t have it all sorted out.”

Clinton cited the controversy in recent years over the counting of votes, as an example of the fact that Americans still have much to figure out in terms of how to run an effective democracy.

“Democracy is a constant work in progress, so we can’t be naïve when we put it on other people,” said Clinton.

He added that most people tend to define a democracy as a system governed by the majority ruling.

“But that is the last thing that our founding fathers wanted,” said Clinton. “Yes, they believed in majority rule, but they also believed in minority law.”

Another student asked Clinton if he believes the United States will continue to be a global leader.

“I think America will continue to be a leader, but I don’t think that we can be the only leader,” said Clinton.

He pointed out that, given the fact that the Chinese and the Indians are the two largest populations on the planet, the sheer logic of numbers is proof that the future will bring other countries into leadership roles.

“If someone is as smart as you are, and they are working as hard as you are, and there are more of them, then it’s only a matter of time before they have more wealth in the aggregate,” said Clinton. “But this is not necessarily a threat. The world is a multi-color world, and we should welcome more collaborative community changes, because no matter what we do, we can’t possibly deal with climate change unless we have other countries helping.”

CLINTON CONCLUDED by suggesting that The Potomac School create its own Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) that could potentially change its mission from year to year, but which would focus on tackling major global issues.

“I’d be glad to help you all set it up,” said Clinton. “It would be a great lesson in citizenship.”

Sophomores Heidi Fisher and Jenny Ledig were both thrilled by Clinton’s suggestion, as both girls had already helped to establish a Students Taking Action Now: Darfur (STAND) chapter at The Potomac School.

“He was so great,” said Ledig. “We were so excited because he mentioned STAND a bunch of times when he was talking about what he would do with the crisis in Darfur.”

When Clinton mentioned creating a Potomac School NGO, Ledig said she and Fisher “kept exchanging looks and smiling about it.”

Fisher said they were particularly excited because they had already discusses starting a “Save the World” club in their junior year.

“We definitely want to see what kind of impact we can make,” said Fisher.

Both students said they were impressed with Clinton’s speech and the answers he gave to the student questions. Ledig added that she really liked the fact that the former president took the time to individually shake the hand of each senior student. She did have one disappointment though.

“I was really hoping he would bring Hillary, but that’s OK,” said Ledig.