One of the purposes of education is to foster civic engagement, to teach us about our rights and obligations as citizens and to encourage us to get involved in the democratic process.

Often, that involvement is measured in responses to public opinion polls and election turnout statistics. Maine is justifiably proud of its above-average voter participation rate.

But sometimes, civic engagement demands more than answering a question or checking a box. Sometimes the choices before us aren’t obvious. They aren’t always presented on a ballot with the instruction: “Pick A or B.” Or, more importantly, the questions that seem most urgent to us aren’t really the important ones.

Back when I was a young instructor at UMF, my colleagues and I suffered various forms of what we came to call “dissertation avoidance syndrome.”

This involved a newfound, energetic, compulsive — even passionate — involvement in some activity other than completing the doctoral dissertations we all knew were the real key to continued employment.

One guy took up farming, another race car driving. One determined to read (on microfilm) every newspaper published in Maine in the 19th century. We all kept frantically busy hauling rocks, tinkering with engines and cranking spools of film, but in retrospect our efforts were largely useless. They kept us occupied but got us nowhere.

I’m reminded of those days by the recent flap over the plans announced by the Jackson Laboratory to build a new research facility in Florida.

That Maine — all of Maine, meaning state, county and local governments, hospitals and research labs, the University of Maine System, the business and philanthropic communities, everyone — has not, for years, been involved in preparing for that announcement is a tragic failure. It’s a failure to ask the right question, to see the important choice.

In June, voters must decide whether to borrow millions to buy a bankrupt railroad and repeal the only significant tax reform in a generation.

The University of Maine System is shuffling programs without addressing its overall structure. The Maine Community College System is cutting costs and adding to admission waiting lists. Suburban parents are moving from town to town (or worrying if they should), trying to stay ahead of the latest school budget cuts, and responsible businesses are set against one another because we’ve failed to adopt a coherent regional land-use policy.

Making all these decisions is necessary; we can’t avoid them. Civic involvement demands that we address them. But they’re not really choices; they’re reactions.

We’re like legislators waiting impatiently for the Revenue Forecasting Commission to tell us how many chips we have so we can pull on our green eyeshades and begin our tedious little game of fiscal checkers. Who but a narcissist could find lusting after the power to win such insignificant skirmishes so satisfying?

Every day, Maine gets a little older, and payments on the IOUs we’ve made to ourselves and only partially financed (with adjustable-rate loans) get a little closer.

If we are to escape the slow cycle of dependence and decline that is our current trajectory, we must resist the temptation to become obsessed with the merely necessary. We need to escape from the dreary but comfortable task of doing what we must.

We need to liberate ourselves to address instead the task of doing what we might. Instead of consoling ourselves with excuses like, “Jackson Lab is too big for us; we can’t compete with Florida,” and returning to our petty necessities, we need to shout, “Never again!”

Real choices aren’t about concessions to “reality”; they’re about imagining a new future.

Dropping $20 million into a pot and hoping for some new freight for Aroostook County isn’t a choice; it’s a surrender. Committing $500 million to expand the best growth engine we have is the real choice.

Dependence and decline, or innovation, jobs, quality of place, efficient regional government, exciting schools, vibrant cities — that’s the real choice. Imagining just what strategies can make that choice a reality is not tedious. It’s liberating. And that’s the sort of civic engagement we need today.

 

Charles Lawton is senior economist for Planning Decisions, a public policy research firm. He can be reached at:

[email protected]