Being Joiners, Not Loners

President Bush promised to bring more "civil discourse" to Washington, and to a large degree he's succeeded over the past few months. He's met with most members of Congress, appears to listen hard, and sometimes bends his views.

"Those of us who are responsible for shaping the dialog must always remember that people are watching," he said recently. "The more civil we can be in Washington ... the more likely it is democracy will continue to flourish."

Civility, of course, is more than just being nice. It's engaging actively with others in public arenas to improve society - or civics.

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Mr. Bush is now well engaged in the public square, but how are Americans, in general, faring in their level of civic life?

Just ask any ninth-grader. That's what the National Center for Education Statistics did. In a recent survey, it found the civics skills of American 14-year-olds to be high, by international standards. They are well versed in how democracy operates, how to understand a political cartoon, and other measures of civics literacy.

Some 80 percent of them said voting in every election was important to being a good citizen. And 90 percent said it was good for democracy when everyone had the right to freely express their opinion.

Students who say they have opportunities to discuss controversial issues, and develop opinions, at home or in the classroom, are the same ones likely to be politically active.

Another recent survey, this one by a group based at Harvard University, asked some 3,000 people in 40 communities about their civic engagement - or how much they trust others, volunteer, or socialize with others. It found the quality of life and happiness to be highest in communities where people are more socially connected.

But it found quite a disparity in civic engagement among communities. In ethnically diverse cities, college graduates are four or five times more likely to be politically involved than their fellow residents. In less ethnically diverse places like New Hampshire, that gap is not nearly so large.

Religion remains a key source of civic engagement, the survey found. Americans are more likely to fully trust people at their place of worship (71 percent) than they are to trust people they work with (52 percent), their neighbors (47 percent), or people of their own race (31 percent).

Only about a third of Americans think most other people can be trusted. That's down from 50 percent four decades ago. And the number of times people entertain at home has dropped 45 percent in 25 years.

Such numbers reflect a need to raise the level of public-spiritedness. That doesn't start at the White House. It begins when Americans turn off their television sets and start to connect with their communities.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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