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The view from Washington


Students get answers straight from Congress

Berkshire Eagle 04/05/2013, Page B01

By Jenn Smith

Berkshire Eagle Staff

DALTON — As part of his multipurpose visit to Berkshire County on Thursday, U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal, D-Springfield, made a stop at Wahconah Regional High School to stump with students on the process of politics, civics and sifting facts from opinion.

Neal’s visit to the school’s library to speak with teacher Jared Shannon’s government class was solicited by Wahconah senior Christopher Darroch, who has led a group called Students Committee for Change. Neal was introduced to the class by state Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru.

The congressman, whose 1st Congressional District includes Berkshire County, comfortably fit into the role as a class lecturer on Thursday, giving a brief history and current overview of national, state and local legislatures before taking questions from students.

Neal has been a part- time faculty member and guest lecturer at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst since 1998, once teaching a course called “ Politician and the Journalist.”

In his position, he said, “you want to be mastering the facts and the politics,” noting that some people are better at one than the other. Both Neal and students criticized figures in media and politics for touting opinions as facts.

The first question the congressman fielded from a student was in regard to the current crisis in North Korea and the leader Kim Jongun’s bellicose remarks and nuclear missile threats.

“I think we need to proceed with firmness and at the same time not be overly zealous,” Neal said, backing the president’s current response to the issue.

The politician highlighted the exercise of diplomacy by telling students, “You should always leave room for your opponent to get out of what he’s said and what he’s done,” he said. “Never leave him in a corner.”

The current national debate on gun regulation and bans on assault weapons particularly piqued students’ interests. Evidenced by students’ access to a 24/7 cycle of information, senior Mary Zabian during the lecture brought up Thursday’s news of a possible gunman on the University of Rhode Island campus — the campus was locked down on Thursday but no gun or suspect was found.

Students also inquired about the rising costs of college and legislation on gay marriage.

Neal explained how current events like these continuously sway and shape national public opinion, affecting how legislation is formed and debated. He demonstrated this by conducting a few polls by hand-raising during the class; the students’ opinions on the above subjects matched nationally polled opinions.

Again, the congressman encouraged students to form opinions and make decisions by examining the facts. “You are a reflection of the American people,” he said.

To reach Jenn Smith: jsmith@berkshireeagle.com, or(413) 496-6239. On Twitter: @JennSmith_Ink