Continental Divides

The Value of Giving Back

For me, John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address comes to mind – 'Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country'

By John McCaslin

I once reported on an intriguing national survey finding that women with Montana roots were the country’s most sought after nannies.

The story explained that if parents were not fortunate enough to raise their families in this great state then they desired nannies who grew up here to help instill in their children the morals and values one inherits (hopefully) from a Montana upbringing. 

Montana, of course, has finished at or near the top of numerous national polling, whether it’s for the best downhill skiing or more quirky of late “Best State for Skin Health.”

Now, on a far more serious note, the University of Montana has been named the No. 1 institution in the entire country for service to community and nation.

The honor was bestowed by Washington Monthly in its annual College Guide and Rankings, which unlike another magazine’s popular survey of colleges and universities rates schools on more strict and meaningful criteria – in this case what they accomplish for the country.

For me, John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address comes to mind – “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” – inspiring young and old alike to recognize the importance of public service and civic involvement. 

I’m a longtime reader and past contributor of sorts to Washington Monthly, which stands out among other publications based in the nation’s capital. Some might recall founder and former editor-in-chief Charles Peters’ (he will turn 96 next month) popular “Tilting at Windmills” column, which appeared in every issue of the magazine from its founding in 1969 until 2014.

Peters and his mix of plucky young writers (Jon Meacham began his writing career at the Washington Monthly) have faithfully adhered to the magazine’s mission of looking at Washington “the way an anthropologist looks at a South Sea island, helping the reader understand our system of politics and government, where it breaks down, and what can be done to make it work.”

A far deeper dive, in other words, that few news or political publications would ever attempt. I can’t imagine the monthly’s current challenges, given today’s unprecedented divides in politics and government.

What I’ve always admired most about the magazine, though, especially in this age of political polarization, is it’s not a mouthpiece for ideologues or beholden to any political persuasion, rather through its mission an independent voice “willing to take on sacred cows – liberal and conservative.”

As for its annual college rankings, the magazine explains that it’s “our answer to U.S. News & World Report, which relies on crude and easily manipulated measures of wealth, exclusivity, and prestige.” 

Ouch! But which in my book gives the UM proclamation – the top institution in the country for the “highest concentration of community and national service” – even more merit.

Each year the monthly ranks schools like UM for their contributions to the public good in three broad categories: social mobility, research and promoting public service. 

For the latter grouping, encompassing everything from community leadership and military service to student voter registration and volunteerism, UM surpassed the nation’s most prestigious public and private institutions, including Notre Dame, George Washington, Duke, Georgetown and Johns Hopkins.

“This ranking confirms what is the very fabric of a UM education: that our students and alumni understand the value of giving back,” reacts University of Montana President Seth Bodnar.

“A life of impact, alongside an understanding that we have a greater calling to something bigger than ourselves, is truly the gift of education.”

John McCaslin is a longtime print and broadcast journalist and author.

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