"Can you write a thousand-word essay on your citizen skills?" consumer advocate Ralph Nader asked an audience of about 550 at UNCP's Givens Performing Arts Center Tuesday night.
"If you can't, you're looking at a big gap in your education," he said.
In a speech entitled "The American Duopoly" Nader addressed America's civic versus commercial values, and the imbalance that exists in favor of big business. Nader is the nation's leading consumer advocate and Green Party candidate for president in 2000.
"You've heard of Americans dying for their country," he said. "Have you heard of Americans who gave their life for their company?"
Nader detailed the struggles blue-collar workers all over the United States have endured, and cited examples of textile employees from North and South Carolina who died from brown lung disease.
He urged citizens to "roll up their sleeves" and "stand tall against injustice." Nader said people must become "pen pals" with members of Congress and make sure these elected officials have the "moral courage" to make unpopular decisions.
Nader criticized post-secondary education because it does not provide the "citizen skills" needed to make informed decisions. Citizenship skills build a strong democracy, solve problems and foresee perils, he said. This can be done only if we have knowledge of history, a sense of civic respect, and empathy for future generations.
Nader emerged into the public spotlight in 1965 with the publication of his book, "Unsafe At Any Speed." It detailed General Motors' corporate decision to maximize profits by producing an unsafe car, the Corvair.
He has published many more books and is considered the most prominent leader of the U.S. consumer protection movement. Nader founded the Center for the Study of Responsive Law, the Center for Auto Safety, and the Public Interest Research Group. The L.A. Times also named him one of the 50 people who most influenced business in this century.
He accused American automobile companies of selling style over safety, and until Volvo introduced the three-point seatbelt, there was little emphasis on building quality vehicles.
The 2000 Green Party presidential candidate has been accused of taking enough Democratic votes from Al Gore to give George W. Bush the presidency. But it does not seem to worry him.
"The two parties are becoming more and more look-alike," Nader said. "Voters don't think there is anything different about them. If a third party can't get onto a presidential debate, they can't get anywhere."
He made sure to tell this audience that North Carolina is the toughest state in which to get a third party on the ballot. 52,000 signatures are required by law here to get a third party on the ballot.
The Distinguished Speaker Series continues Jan. 28 with Edward James Olmos, followed by Maya Angelou on Feb. 26 and Sherman Alexie on April 2. All lectures are at 7 p.m. at Givens Performing Arts Center and the cost is $5.
Andrea Vukcevic is a journalism major at UNCP.