Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Citizenship Education for the Community: The Local Public Administrator as Instructional Leader

Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Citizenship Education for the Community: The Local Public Administrator as Instructional Leader

Article excerpt

It was Hendrick Ibsen, a 19th century playwright, who wrote: "A community is like a ship; everyone ought to be prepared to take the helm" (Bartlett, 1980:599). Implied in this quote is a basic requirement for practicing good citizenship. But in 1992, how well are we prepared as citizens to steer our community and keep the public good afloat? If we are not, who will assist us in this preparation? Historically, Americans have assigned the task of citizenship education to the public school systems of the country (Civitas, 1991; Boyer, 1990). A broadening of this responsibility is suggested.

This article will present the argument that local government administrators, a largely untapped resource, acting as instructional leaders in their communities can make a significant contribution to the development of local citizenship education. They are able to do this because a critical component of citizenship is community and local government is the level of government which most appropriately lends itself to community building.

For the development of citizenship, the community is an important level of analysis because its institutions, like local government, provide individuals with the opportunity to act directly for the public good in their own neighborhoods. John Dewey (1927:213) said, "Democracy must begin at home and its home is the neighborly community." The local level, therefore, is a logical place where the principles of democracy can be taught. In America, the local level of government is for most people the level where government is the most real: it affects where people live, work, and grow up.

Thomas Jefferson discussed the importance of the local wards or units of local governments as a basic community institution. He referred to them as possessing a "vital principle" and further stated that they have "proved themselves the wisest invention ever devised by the wit of man for the perfect exercise of self government and for its preservation" (Mason, 1952:372). For Jefferson, one of the primary roles of the wards was the educating and "activizing" of the people in their function as vigilant and intelligent actors within the federal system (Koch, 1957).

This same sentiment about local government was articulated by Alexis de Tocqueville, an early analyst and admirer of American government. Tocqueville (1969:62-63) said that "...the strength of free peoples resides in the local community. Local institutions are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they put it within the people's reach, they teach people to appreciate its peaceful enjoyment and accustom them to make use of it. Without local institutions, a nation may give itself a free government, but has not got the spirit of liberty."

It would be a fair assumption to conclude that the traditional American idea of citizenship included the notion that the individual could only fully develop himself through being a conscientious and autonomous participant in an autonomous, decision-making political community (Hart, 1989).

Despite this tradition of community-focused citizenship, the last decade of the 20th century finds America with a measurable lack of civic interest and commitment. In a nationwide survey of college students, only 23.3% of freshmen felt that participation in community action was "essential" or "very important" (Morse, 1989). In a survey conducted by Peter Hart Research Associates Inc., it was found among 15 to 24 year olds that only 24% of those surveyed indicated that being involved in helping the community be a better place was a life goal (Clinton and Bell, 1989). Another survey of high school students found that knowledge of government and participation in community and school affairs were not identified as strong characteristics of good citizenship (Dynneson, 1992). It is not difficult to understand why some think that Americans have allowed some long-established views of citizenship to languish (Dimock, 1990). …

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