The ancient African proverb says it takes an entire village to raise a child. My own village was a small town in the middle of Western Maryland. We had two railroad stations, several factories, three very good high schools and a lot of mountains. But the most important thing we had was each other.
It was impossible to grow up in Cumberland in the 1940s and 1950s without having a deep sense that we are all in this together. You knew the community was behind you. And that it demanded certain things from you. Every kid growing up in my town knew that even if you broke the rules once in a while, the rules still mattered very much.
Today, the members of my high school class of 1952 are scattered far and wide across the country. But 43 years later, wherever they are and whatever they are doing, they go through each day with the values of our town embedded in their souls and as much a part of them as their own flesh and blood.
I tell you all of this not out of nostalgia for my small-town roots, but to question what values our villages today are instilling. What will be embedded in the souls of today's youngsters 43 years from now? This is not just a rhetorical question. It goes to the very heart of everything we are doing in our public and private institutions today.
When crime increases, when kids drop out of school, when children have children, when violence replaces faith and hope, when drugs proliferate, the natural reaction of the public and the press is to demand solutions from the political system. People constantly ask, "Why don't we have tougher laws? Why isn't the government doing something about these problems?"
And we politicians respond to these demands. We pass more laws. We create more programs -- to prevent, to prepare, to punish and to protect. When I came to the legislature in 1975, the state budget was $2.8 billion. In 20 years, that number has increased five-fold. This year alone, we will spend $757 million on adult and juvenile corrections, and $320 million on aid to families with dependent children. We have spent millions upon millions on prevention, on drug and alcohol programs, and on targeted education, health and social welfare programs.
I have supported most of these initiatives. In frustration, though, I must confess that our social problems seem immune to many of these efforts. Indeed, paradoxically, the problems seem to have worsened.
Today, 69 percent of school-age children in Baltimore live in poverty. One out of three suffers from a serious learning disability. Fifty percent of the children are born into single-parent families. And thousands, mostly young people, were victims of violent crime last year.
The largest state construction project under way today is in my home county, and it is not a library or a school. It is a $227 million project to build a 2,600-bed medium-security prison. At completion in the year 2001, it will house inmates who today are students in the sixth and seventh grades.
I often wonder if even the best efforts of our government can change the fate of these children. Often, it seems that even our most successful efforts to solve these problems seem only to nibble at the margins. Perhaps that is because we have been treating the symptoms of these diseases, not the disease itself. We have been using political and governmental answers on problems that at the very core demand social and moral answers.
To begin with, we need to recognize who in society are the real lawmakers. Although the Maryland Constitution says that the 188 members of the General Assembly -- our state senators and delegates -- enact the laws of the state, the truth is that you -- as citizens -- are the real legislators. The real lawmaking in our society takes place within you. It is your attitude, your conscience, your actions that decide what rules we live by. This is a legislative process more powerful than anything Bill Clinton or Newt Gingrich could ever dream about.
If there is any doubt about this, let me give you two compelling examples. Since 1989, drunk-driving arrests in our state have declined by 34 percent. To be sure, our legislature passed tougher laws. But the real change has been in the hearts and minds of our citizens, whose attitudes about alcohol and driving are today markedly different than they were just two decades ago. Our citizens have created strong expectations of behavior -- a public conscience that is more powerful than any more statute.
Tobacco is another example. When I was in college, smoking was the norm. In the last 15 years, public expectations of health-conscious behavior have changed dramatically. Our new law banning indoor smoking in public places did not create public sentiment, it simply responded to it and codified it.
Even I responded. Last month, with the encouragement of my family, my cardiologist and a quadruple bypass, I gave up my lifelong smoking habit. We can change. After all these years, the public conscience finally caught up with my private conscience.
These unwritten rules of the village can be powerful, but they can also lose their meaning if we are not united as one village. When we divide into separate societies -- segregated by race or economics, by gender or by geographic region -- then our laws and values, written and unwritten begin to break down as well. Our public conscience begins to disintegrate.
Throughout our history, we have never enjoyed strong public morality without also having strong public unity. Increasingly today, we are becoming polarized as separate societies and into special-interest groups, no longer united by a common purpose. The commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II reminds us that in those days, you could walk down the street and listen to the voice of Franklin Roosevelt coming from every house. Our nation was united in its goals, but also its values.
Today, you can find that same sense of common purpose emerging in the new democracies of Eastern Europe, and even in such unlikely places as South Africa and Vietnam. But we have to look harder to find this same sense of purpose right here at home.
Instead, identity and values based upon gender, race or ethnicity have become a greater source of pride than our identify as Americans -- and as fellow human beings.
Some of our college campuses offer good examples of this. This month, four prominent American colleges are debating so-called affinity dormitories, where students seek to live and study exclusively among their own ethnic groups. The curriculum of many colleges continues to expand ethnic or gender studies, or- ganizing academic disciplines around what divides rather than what unites. And much academic scholarship and literature have headed in this direction as well.
To be sure, pride in oneself, one's gender, race and ethnic origins is important. If it wasn't, I wouldn't spend Saturday afternoons rooting for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. But when this identity becomes all-important, it strikes out, in a quiet but profound way -- against our best hopes for a larger community.
We become limited by the external characteristics of our birth, at a time when we should become broadened by larger aspirations our character. I cannot select my pigment, my gender, my ethnic origins. These are accidents of my birth; I am powerless to change them.
But I do have the power to choose my character, my moral outlook, my contribution to society. It is these characteristics of the soul that make us strong.
We should seek to be united as a community based on these characteristics -- to be known first and foremost as people of integrity, courage and caring.
Casper R. Taylor Jr. is speaker of the Maryland House Delegates. This article is excerpted from the commencement speech he delivered at Villa Julie College.