When I was a freshman in high school, my computer-aided design teacher said something I’ll never forget: “You can talk about anything in my classroom, but don’t talk about religion and politics.” That was the first time I heard a phrase that has sincerely troubled me ever since. I imagined Franklin and Jefferson, among many others, sitting in a bar in Boston, drinking and fantasizing about a world where they could criticize their kings and oppressors. Surely, they must both be rolling in their graves as we speak.

For me, the biggest issue isn’t so much with the value of the statement itself, but with the general sentiment of apathy behind it. I think a lot of that has to do with how polarizing our politics are. You’re either one team or the other, Democrat or Republican, and it often feels like you have to pick a team. Chances are, one of your friends sides with the opposite team. And no one likes an argument, right? Newsflash: Both of these choices suck. A lot. And the reason they get away with so much is that we let them.

For instance, this week, many of you may have noticed that the federal government “shut down.” What baffled me wasn’t the shutdown itself, but the lack of reaction to it. Where were the protests? How is it fair that the people in Congress who caused the shutdown get paid, but the families of our dead soldiers currently aren’t receiving their benefits? This is an outrage. And I guarantee if this happened anywhere in western Europe, there would be protests, potentially violent ones. The numbers don’t lie: In the 2012 parliamentary election in the Netherlands, almost 75 percent of citizens eligible to vote participated. In our most recent congressional election, in 2010, 37.8 percent of Americans participated. And we wonder why our government can be so awful. It’s probably because no one does anything about it.

Speaking of the Netherlands, I was fortunate enough to spend my most recent spring semester there. What impressed me about the country, other than its beautiful canals and delicious cheese, was how opinionated everyone was. The country had 12 parliamentary political parties for a country of not even 17 million people. Each party specifically catered to a distinct audience. There even was an animal rights party (Party for the Animals), something I fully endorse.

Even better yet, what really impressed me was how much more respectful everyone was toward each other’s opinions. We have something to learn from that. Just because you completely disagree with a person doesn’t mean you should get mad at him or her. At least that person has an opinion. After all, we are a nation where 29 percent of citizens can’t even identify the vice president, according to Newsweek. And no one in the Netherlands had ever even heard of that little value I mentioned earlier, not discussing religion or politics. It seemed more taboo not to talk about them. While every country certainly has its flaws, it was the small things that really added up for me. For instance, in England, politicians can’t campaign until a month before the election. How nice would that be?

If everyone participated more actively in our democracy, we would have a better country, and thus, a better world. We are still the most influential country in the world, and with that position comes a responsibility — one we aren’t adequately fulfilling. More regulations on dangerous foods and medicines, term limits for congresspersons and fewer corporations and interest groups buying our politicians are issues many Americans can agree upon. So let’s make it happen.

In conclusion I issue you a challenge: Instead of talking about who your friend made out with last weekend at the Rat, why not discuss a current event that interests you? If your friends don’t follow the news, fill them in. None of these issues are too complicated; it’s just a matter of finding out what you agree with and who you really are. And isn’t that what college is all about?