Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich spoke at the Union League on Thursday. The event was held by the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia, which seeks to educate the public on national and international issues through speaker events, travel opportunities and student programs.
“Since its founding in 1949, WAC has made a commitment to education and world affairs,” says Margaret Lonzetta, who has overseen educational programs for three decades.
From eight high schools in the tri-state region, 30 students attended Thursday’s luncheon and speech with over one hundred of Philadelphia’s business elite to hear Gingrich discuss policy, reform, and his new book, “Winning the Future.”
Gingrich emphasized the complexity of the challenges facing today’s administration and the need for serious reforms in the areas of regulation, education, litigation and taxation.
“Our vision … draws from Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt … it’s an enormous challenge,” Gingrich said. “There are negotiations underway between Palestine and Israel, operations underway to create an interim government in Iraq, threats from North Korea, who decided cheerfully yesterday to defy the entire planet. And that’s just a normal day.”
High school senior Elsa Chin, who has seen speakers like Madeleine Albright and Noam Chomsky in her three years with the program through Eastern Regional High School in Voorhees, NJ, ranks Gingrich’s speech a good one. Engaging the audience with a casual demeanor and humor, Gingrich fielded questions from the audience, giving equal floor time to students.
While audience members asked Gingrich to extrapolate on subjects like education and litigation reform, the students were some of the toughest critics. One asked Gingrich to defend his stance on the role of God in public life and government, while another suggested that his book would be more diplomatically titled “Cooperating for the Future.”
“Our capacity in the long run to lead the planet and maintain security requires major reform,” Gingrich said. “This is the first time since 1840 that other countries are capable of competing with us … It’s called ‘winning’ because we’re not going to inherit it. We have to roll up our sleeves and win it.”
As students stood in line after the event to have their books signed, their discussions centered on politics and their reactions to the speech. Freshmen from Bodine High School for International Affairs expressed interest in Gingrich’s education ideas, though they said they were not sure they were all “practical.” That kind of debate is part of the mission of WAC and the speakers like Gingrich that it brings to Philadelphia.
Students learn about ” … current events, international affairs, leadership, problem solving, and critical thinking,” said Lonzetta. “With public and private schools, city and suburban schools, parochial schools, they get to interact with a variety of students.”
Schools can enroll students in the program through clubs or classes. WAC opportunities include a model U.N., model Senate, and even international trips. In Japan this summer, 12 students will meet with Japanese students, and in Philadelphia, a Mock International Court of Justice will be held on March 25. Lonzetta says the number of area schools currently involved nears 200, with 12-15 being Philadelphia public schools. Scholarships from private donors enable the kids to attend events like Thursday’s speech; Chin is an example of the result of such donations.
When she goes to college next fall, she hopes to major in political science and international business with a minor in international relations.
“I chose those majors because of WAC. I used to want pre-med. Now I want to go to law school,” Chin said. “We get to learn so much. I knew nothing about politics and the world. All my views have changed.”
Gingrich thinks the very “process of being at the lunch table with successful business professionals” is a good experience for students.
“It’s good for young people to be at events with adults,” he said. “They learn about real issues in real life and not in the abstract.”
Elizabeth Vaughn can be reached at email@example.com.