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Many Blueprints for Democracy

Newly free nations have much to teach the US about citizenship - and vice versa

By R. Freeman Butts. R. Freeman Butts is professor emeritus in the Foundations of EducationTeachers College, Columbia University in New York. He was senior consultant and adviser for the National Standards for Civics and Government (1994). / June 23, 1995



AS we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II and the founding of the United Nations this year, we rightly praise the role of military strength and economic prowess in the world's struggle against tyranny and search for peace. But do we give enough credit to the power of the strongly held democratic values that enabled the citizens of Europe and America to endure and eventually to prevail? Do we know enough about how democratic peoples acquire and sustain their civic virtues of obligation to freedom, justice, equality, and truth?

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In the summer of 1937, a young American couple, newly married, was making a first "grand tour" of Europe. After two weeks encountering at firsthand the realities of politics and education in Nazi Germany, they arrived with relief in Prague.

When we asked our Czech hosts about the future, they expressed little fear about the threat to their fragile democracy from the menacing neighbor to the West: "They said they had been reading for 10 years about German aggression and so were not esp. concerned at present." A foreign ministry official put it this way: "The military sit. seemed no more strained than it has ever been, but that is not to say that it is not bad."

Yet, on the eve of our departure from Prague one week later at the "swell Cafe Barrandov on a high hill overlooking the city," the Czech couple, our contemporaries, who had developed some confidence in us, finally confided: "We would not think of having children. The future is too fearful." Why such a decision, we asked, when France and Britain will surely protect you? Their reply: "The Lufftwaffe bombers are only 10 minutes away."

Neither their statement nor their names are recorded in my diary, but my wife and I have never forgotten those words: "We shall have no children." We grieved for these friends when British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced "peace in our time" at Munich in 1938 and when Soviet tanks rolled over the "Prague Spring" of 1968. We rejoiced at the "Velvet Revolution" in 1989. We hoped that the couple were still there.

At least our Czech friends knew the nature of the evil they feared and faced. Today, Americans must confront the fear of a homegrown evil inflicted upon children ruthlessly killed in Oklahoma City on April 19. The people of Prague and other European countries have suffered for decades the known tyrannies of Nazism and Communism and of recurring terrorism. What can we learn from them?

On June 2 to 6, several hundred educational and political leaders from Europe and North America met in Prague and on the Internet to define ways of "Strengthening Citizenship and Civic Education, East and West." The purpose was to build personal, professional, and political networks that would promote better education for citizenship among the newer as well as the older democracies of the world. Although democracy shows signs of resurgence in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as in parts of Asia, Latin America, and Africa, its presence is fragile and tender.

In the older democracies, democratic values and forms of government are under assault from frustration, cynicism, fear, hatred, and violent extremism. A stable democracy requires a civic education that builds among its youth the knowledge, values, and skills of democratic citizenship. Only a strong sense of community can overcome the alienation and rage that have arisen in many countries around the world. And an enduring sense of democratic values can be achieved only by a civic education that enables and encourages citizens to overcome the violence, prejudices, and age-old hatreds of nationality, class, race, religion, or ethnicity, while preserving the cultural integrity of their diverse heritages.

These may sound like high-minded visionary platitudes, but think a moment about the alternatives we now see - in Bosnia, in the Middle East, in the newly independent states of Europe and Asia, in Rwanda and Burundi, and, yes, in Oklahoma City. We must help each other as much as possible.

The new democracies in the East are struggling to define a democratic citizenship that fits their history, time, and place. The United States is undergoing a historic debate concerning the role of the federal government in the lives of its people. Both are struggling to define the meaning of democratic civitas for the 21st century.

In his address to a joint session of Congress in February 1990, Czech President Vaclav Havel argued: "It was in the interest of my country, of Europe, and of the whole world to help make the Soviet Union a more free, more democratic, and more stable place with the emphasis on democracy. The experience of the postwar period has shown us that no amount of economic assistance will make a totalitarian country more prosperous unless it is made more democratic." In March of that year, Czechoslovakia's new ambassador to the United States, Rita Klimova, reaffirmed that her country was not primarily asking for economic aid from the West: "What we are asking for [is] ... aid in the area of education for democracy."

Every nation genuinely interested in peace must seek to promote democratic citizenship among its people. Differences will exist. No one model of democracy will fit all nations. No single pattern should be imposed by one people upon another. But the effort to find common ground for civic engagement and democratic citizenship among all nations is indispensable.

We can learn much from those who have long lived under tyranny and terrorism. They understand and appreciate the value of freedom and civic community. They can learn much from our long experiment with a sturdy and stable democracy.