Taking our civic measure

Americans care, and show it - but strangely not in matters of governance

Recently the US Education Department reported on discouraging results from its National Civics Test. For instance, 35 percent of high school seniors failed outright, and only 9 percent were able "to give two reasons for citizens to be involved in a democratic society."

That follows successive reports that participation in national and local elections has dropped in 25 years from two-thirds to one-third of the voting-age population, and that people 18 to 34 years are least involved.

There is also a spate of books with titles such as "Americans No More: The Death of Citizenship," "Democracy On Trial," and "Why People Don't Trust Government," all raising serious questions about the state of the country.

An important point missed in analyses of these downturns is that for at least 30 years we have pretty much phased out the study of civics in public schools, leaving it to somebody else, still not identified or involved, to fill the void.

When the country was founded, there were grave doubts about giving the vote and the right to hold office to most people, particularly the undereducated. When the principle of "citizens as the primary office-holders of government" was put forward, the debate intensified and was only narrowly won by Thomas Jefferson's argument: "I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education."

Indeed, conveying the sentiments, knowledge, and skills of good citizenship was the primary reason for establishing universal education in America.

Gradually, voting rights were extended to many more people, including poorer people who couldn't afford the ubiquitous poll tax. But just as gradually, we dropped civic education for everyone. Now we wring our hands at the consequences and even allow educators to rationalize that the subject was not important or popular enough to continue or scholarly enough to reinstate. They overlook that the United States is the longest-lived democracy in history, providing greater freedom and opportunity than any nation has ever known. No leader or leadership institution - particularly no educator or educational institution - can presume that fostering active citizenship to extend these glorious freedoms for those who come after us is someone else's business.

We allow ourselves to be lulled into believing legislatures and courts will take care of us, but as the eminent jurist Learned Hand advised, "Believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it."

Our civic dilemma is compounded by growing evidence of indifference, intolerance, incivility, and selfishness. How much deterioration of our civil society will it take to irreparably weaken democracy?

The historian Edward Gibbon chronicled the decline of an earlier great model of democracy: "When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society but for society to give to them, when the freedom they wished for most was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free."

Against all these negative facts and forces there are some hopeful signs. In "Why People Don't Trust Government," Joseph Nye indicates that despite how negatively people feel about government, "the public overwhelmingly thinks the United States is the best place to live [80 percent] and we like our democratic system of government [90 percent]." He concludes, "Something is steady."

Americans are active volunteers, with 55 percent of those over the age of 14 contributing an average of four hours a week. We care and we show it, but strangely not often in ways that relate to effective governance.

Many schools are reintroducing something like civics, generally under the title "service learning," involving community participation and classroom consideration of what all the involvement means to a healthy society.

More than 700 colleges and universities are now part of Campus Compact, which requires a commitment "to help students develop the values and skills of citizenship through participation in public and community service." My own university revised its mission to indicate that the very definition of a Tufts education will include preparation for a lifetime of active citizenship, and it is establishing a University College of Citizenship and Public Service.

Our democracy can last, but only if we accept and practice the enduring covenant cogently summarized by John W. Gardner, founder of Common Cause:

"Freedom and responsibility

Liberty and duty

That's the deal."

My hope is that we will solemnly commit to that pledge and prepare our children and their children to pass it on.

*Brian O'Connell is professor of public service in the Lincoln Filene Center for Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University and author of 'Civil Society: The Underpinnings of American Democracy' (University Press of New England).

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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