Finals Week and Leaving Congress

Today marks the beginning of the last week of classes at Baylor University. Students across campus consult with professors, bury their noses in textbooks, and chain themselves to their laptops. Instructors frantically put together rubrics, draw up exams, and respond to student inquiries. The crowd at the library, already larger than average, will grow exponentially as Finals Week approaches as students and professors alike prime for the academic year’s penultimate push. For some, this is the last Finals Week of their careers; the last seminar essay they’ll ever write, the last test they’ll ever study for, the last cup of coffee they’ll gulp down at 4:30 in the morning before falling asleep on their lecture notes. Though many look forward to the days when they no longer have assignments to complete or classes to attend (and rightfully so), we can’t help but think of it this time as the end of an era. No longer will those who graduate in two weeks gather in scheduled sessions solely to discuss literature, politics, social issues, economics, history, family dynamics, or human health. No longer will they be encouraged to think simply to think, to write simply to write, or to observe for the joy of observing. For them, college’s end means the beginning of “real life.” Last semester, we posted about the collegiate and congressional freshman experiences. In that same spirit, today we’re looking at the last days of a congressman’s time in office. What do they look forward to? What are they proud of? What do they regret?

These questions don’t have easy answers, but we can still look to our collections for guidance. In a 2012 lecture titled “What’s Wrong with Washington and Right About America,” Chet Edwards reflected on the enduring respect he felt toward the country: “After 20 years in Washington, I still got excited when I looked out my office window and saw the American flag flying over the majestic U.S. Capitol. I still believe we have had the greatest democracy in the world.” However, Edwards also expressed concern over the contemporary political climate:

Leaders in both parties too often seem more interested in demonizing the opposition than in looking for common ground to solve our nation’s challenges … There is nothing wrong with principled differences of opinion.  Debate is the sound of democracy in action, but severe partisanship and personal attacks can be paralyzing … You can solve the easy problems on a partisan basis.  However, to solve the big challenges, such as reducing the enormous federal deficits and national debt, solving the immigration problem, reforming entitlements and improving the quality and affordability of our education system and competing in the world economy…to solve these challenges will take bipartisan effort in Washington.

Edwards attributed the growing partisanship in Congress partly to increasingly segmented journalism, the exploding popularity and unfiltered nature of social media, congressional redistricting, and low voter turnout during primaries. However, he also believed congressmen weren’t spending enough time together in non-offiical capacities, which exacerbated existing ideological divides, and that money had begun to play too large a role in politics.

Despite these observations, Edwards still expressed optimism about the country’s future:

I admire and even revere our founding fathers, but I believe the true greatness of America comes from our everyday citizens … I learned a lot from meeting leaders in business, education, politics and the military, but my most special memories are from meeting everyday citizens who are the heart and soul of the American spirit.

Edwards saw Congress as an opportunity to serve the nation and Americans. The days of giving speeches, discussing policy, and meeting constituents never really ended. He still advocates for causes and contributes to political expertise, though now as a private citizen. For Edwards, leaving Congress did not mean the beginning of “real life,” only a change in the way he served. As the semester ends, we encourage students to follow his example; don’t think of the next few days as conclusion, but as a transition between what you have accomplished and what you will.

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