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When Elijah Cummings says, 'We are better than this,' he really means we could be

Poly seniors Michelle Mokaya and Timothy Honablew with Ingenuity Project math teacher Mikhail Goldenberg in a classroom last month.
Poly seniors Michelle Mokaya and Timothy Honablew with Ingenuity Project math teacher Mikhail Goldenberg in a classroom last month.

We could be better. We could get outside ourselves — outside the habits and prejudices that make us complacent, stubborn, even tribal — and remember that today is about tomorrow and the lives of our children, grandchildren and generations we will never know.

We could lead the world in arresting climate change and transforming economies. We could muster the will to fix what’s broken (and there’s so much that’s broken, from water mains to the immigration system). We could seed more research and support more innovation. We could develop more cures for disease and more ways for people to afford them. We could expand health care for all and higher education for anyone who wants it (though not without raising taxes and avoiding more debt).

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We could push harder to harness sun and wind to fuel homes and electric cars, trucks, ships and guitars. We could build more passenger rail and bike paths. We could find ways to cut the rate of gun violence in half in a decade. We could mount an all-out campaign against drug addiction, turning prisons into hospitals.

We could find more sustainable ways of producing food. We could repopulate abandoned neighborhoods in old cities and spare the countryside more sprawl. We could do all this and spread prosperity to more families, from middle class to poor, from cities to suburbs to rural towns.

It sounds like too much. But that’s the thing: We have to do all of it. While on the surface conditions look fine — the unemployment rate is low, our choices in home entertainment and pickup trucks abundant — we have allowed too many problems to accumulate and fester. It frustrates us. It made some Americans so angry they voted for president a con man who promised to fix everything.

At moments of outrage and despair, we hear politicians and activists say, “We are so much better than this!”

Rep. Elijah Cummings has said it several times, most recently at the close of Michael Cohen’s testimony Wednesday about his sordid undertakings for Donald J. Trump. “We are better than this,” Cummings said, referring to the pile of depravity Cohen presented. “We really are. As a country, we are so much better than this.”

I understand what the Baltimore congressman means. His words are aspirational. He knows we are not “better than this” right now. We are what we are — a nation with 40,000 gun deaths a year, more than 70,000 drug overdose deaths a year, a declining life expectancy, income inequality at Great Depression levels, infrastructure failing and threatened by extreme weather, climate conditions worsening faster than scientists originally thought.

But Cummings is right: We have the power to be better, and I say that under the influence of a recent visit to a public high school in Baltimore.

A brush with bright youth can make anyone optimistic, even here, in Our City of Perpetual Recovery. But it’s not just optimism I took away from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. It’s a sense of obligation. Hearing about the impressive accomplishments and beautiful ambitions of two seniors, Timothy Honablew and Michelle Mokaya, got me there.

Timothy and Michelle have been working hard in The Ingenuity Project, an advanced curriculum for a few hundred students, in middle school as well as high school, who excel in mathematics and science. The project got underway at Poly in 1997, and it has sent some of the city’s brightest to great universities.

Timothy has been accepted at MIT. He wants to be a quantum physicist. Here’s how he described his dreams in a college application: “I want to help all of humanity by revolutionizing physics by combining quantum mechanics and classical physics into one proven theory, hopefully leading to greater developments in technology.”

Michelle, winner of a major scholarship for high school seniors, completed a research paper on a parasitic disease. She hopes for acceptance to Brown and has a specific career interest: “I want to focus on drug therapy and the different ways we can insert drugs into bodies. I want to better understand that whole system, and what devices we can use to better distribute drugs.”

We owe it to Timothy, Michelle and their peers — that is, every kid in this country — to make sure they get a chance to make a difference in this world. I don’t know what’s more important than leaving those coming after us a livable, sustainable and progressive society in a nation that rewards hard work and ambition, that celebrates our generosity as much as our prosperity, our brains as much as our brawn. We could be so much better.

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