My six-year-old son's school, located in the suburbs of Washington DC, organised an optional and free trip to the White House, the headquarters of the US presidency and the residence and workplace of the president and the First Family. Since the students are so young, the school contacted parents, suggesting that each child take two chaperones on the trip. I decided to go with my son, and since my wife was busy we decided to take my four-year-old son along.
We arrived on time, and there was a long queue of more than 100 people. While we waited, parents, teachers and students discussed the idea of opening up the White House to such young students. We talked about the White House, its history and significance. It was a great surprise for my children that their father was the only parent who had been inside the White House, and several times (on journalism assignments).
We did not tour all of the White House or go to the second floor where President Obama and his family live. We did not go to the offices of senior White House officials either, or the president’s Oval Office. The visit was limited to about one quarter of the White House, including some of the key and largest rooms and halls that were decorated for Christmas and New Year.
When we approached the security gates, we were divided into two groups: US citizens and non-citizens. The security check only took a few minutes and only entailed going through an electronic gate — like those in airports. Our cell phones were not taken, and after a few minutes US citizens and non-citizens were in the White House South Garden. We wandered separately after that, as everyone tried to keep their child in check when their noise grew louder as they played and ran down the corridors and rooms of the building. There were very few security guards inside, and they did nothing more than take our pictures and be photographed with the children in an overall happy atmosphere.
On the large walls of the White House, there are oil paintings of most US presidents, without making a distinction between Republican and Democrat or who was in power for four years or eight. The White House is an architectural marvel, and one of the oldest government buildings in Washington. All US presidents have worked and lived there, with the exception of the very first one, George Washington, since it was finished in 1792 after his term in office ended. At the time, it cost $232,000 to build, and today it is valued at nearly $110 million, according to real estate experts.
Elementary and pre-school trips aim to expose children to important values that stay with them for the rest of their lives. In the US, this is not only limited to political institutions such as the White House, Congress, Supreme Constitutional Court or various ministries, but also includes trips that build a variety of admirable traits, including environment protection, showcasing differences between US states and life outside the city.
I chaperoned my young children on several trips, including to green areas and specialised farms, where children are shown close up the life of farmers, their animals, crops, and traditional and modern equipment. Students spend an entire day helping out farmers in their daily chores, including taking care of the animals. On another trip, we went to a strawberry farm where students spent hours picking strawberries, and the owner allowed the children to keep some of what they picked. Naturally, students were ecstatic to go home carrying strawberries they had picked themselves.
Childhood is a key stage to embed values and concepts, especially regarding the relationship between the citizen and institutions of governance, human beings, nature and surrounding environment. Embedding these values at this critical stage makes them a fundamental component in building character, since a person gains the values of nationalism from the start from his environmental and social upbringing, and feels they are part of a whole. They also entrench in the formative years a set of principles that do not know fear or dread or a gap between the citizen and key institutions and symbols of governance in his country. Thus, the young student and later adult citizen is not intimidated by the White House or Congress, or the offices of Congressmen.
Opening the doors of institutions of governance for citizens, young and old, is an important value that creates healthy relations between the two sides and everyone wins in the short and long run.
How many of our school children are given an opportunity to visit Qubba Palace or Itihadiya Palace? How many of them were taught since the early years that the people occupying these palaces are their servants and the servants of other school children, and all Egyptians? When will school children and citizens have the right to wander around the Egyptian parliament, to find out how these institutions that are directly funded by their money operate, and how MPs spend their time?
The collective mind of students, youth and citizens is formed from a variety of accumulative experiences. Among the available experiences in the US are the rows of seats in all rooms and halls where hearings and interpellations are held for senior US officials who are only separated by a few metres from the general public, who attend these hearings without any preconditions except to arrive early enough to guarantee a good seat.
Societies around us have advanced. Schools and universities have become the best emerging tools for creating a political culture. However, some regimes, including the incumbent one in Egypt, insist on taking advantage of these tools to increase their control of universities by denying students independence, and enforcing a culture of submission to the desires of power. Meanwhile, the gap between the regime and youth grows wider, which negatively impacts not only the present but also the future.
The writer is a researcher on Egyptian politics.