Magazine article Social Studies Review

Citizenship: From Conceptual Learning to Active Participation

Magazine article Social Studies Review

Citizenship: From Conceptual Learning to Active Participation

Article excerpt

President Harry S. Truman is an American legend and a personal hero of mine. My favorite Truman story has him at a press conference during the final days of his presidency. As the story goes, reportedly true to history, a reporter asks Truman what will he do now that he is leaving the presidency-the highest office of the land. Without any hesitation, as was Truman's style, he replied, "I'm not leaving the highest office of the land, I'm assuming the highest office, that of citizen." Earlier Louis Brandeis expressed the same belief, "The only title in our democracy superior to that of president is the title citizen."

So it would appear that education for democratic citizenship is essential. As President John F. Kennedy observed, "There is an old saying that the course of civilization is a race between catastrophe and education. In a democracy such as ours, we must make sure that education wins the race."

The National Standards for Civics and Government, developed by the Center for Civic Education (Center), outlines and provides a strong rationale for the civic mission of our schools. Although it has been argued that the establishment of the proper institutions is sufficient to maintain a free society, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, and others recognized that even the most well-designed institutions are not sufficient. Ultimately, a free society must rely on the knowledge, skills, and virtue of its citizens. Civic education, therefore, is essential to the preservation and improvement of American constitutional democracy.

The goal of education in civics and government is informed, responsible participation in political life by competent, rational, humane citizens committed to the fundamental values and principles of American constitutional democracy. Their effective and responsible participation requires the acquisition of a body of knowledge and of intellectual and participatory skills. Effective and responsible participation also is furthered by development of certain dispositions or traits of character that enhance the individual's capacity to participate in the political process and contribute to the healthy functioning of the political system and the improvement of society.

In various publications and research papers, our noted California colleagues, Margaret Stimmann Branson, R. Freeman Butts, and Charles N. Quigley, have reinforced the need for us to recognize the importance of education for democratic citizenship. They would argue that we as educators and citizens should realize that civic education is essential to sustain our constitutional democracy. The habits of the mind, as well as "habits of the heart," the dispositions that inform the democratic ethos, are not inherited. As Alexis de Toqueville pointed out, each new generation is a new people that must acquire the knowledge, learn the skills, and develop the dispositions or traits of private and public character that undergird a constitutional democracy. Those dispositions must be fostered and nurtured by word and study and by the power of example. Democracy is not a "machine that would go of itself," but must be consciously reproduced, one generation after another.

Civic education, therefore, is -or should be- a prime concern. There is no more important task for us as educators than the development of an informed, effective, and responsible citizenry. Absent a reasoned commitment on the part of its citizens to the fundamental values and principles of democracy, a free and open society cannot succeed.

In American democracy each citizen is a full and equal member of a self-governing community endowed with fundamental rights and entrusted with responsibilities. Both the government and the citizens are responsible for the protection of the rights of individuals and for the promotion of the common good. It is a fundamental responsibility of the citizen to see that government serves the purposes for which it was created. …

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