Civic Learning

The Hon. Lee H. Hamilton
65th Annual National Conference on Citizenship
Library of Congress Washington, D.C
Sep 17 2010


Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you, Chuck, for hosting this luncheon. Thanks for all the great work that you and the Center for Civic Education do in this country and abroad to teach people how to be good citizens.

And thanks to all of you in this room for your efforts to strengthen our nation's civic life and to foster innovation in civic learning.

You and I believe that the success of our democracy is determined by the participation of its citizens.
We agree with Lincoln, who asked whether this nation, devoted to the values of liberty, equality, justice and opportunity "so conceived and so dedicated…can long endure."
In these words, he told us a truth about our democracy — that its survival is never guaranteed, and that its success demands wisdom and action from American citizens.
We are concerned because too many Americans lack a basic understanding of:
  • The core institutions in our representative democracy;
  • Our debt to our ancestors who established those institutions;
  • And our responsibilities to teach our descendants about those institutions.
We are concerned because if Americans increasingly disengage — if more and more Americans are less and less interested in civic responsibility — then the entire American democratic enterprise is at risk, and the country will not work.
Many have observed that the joy of being an American is the joy of freedom and opportunity. We have been bequeathed freedom, justice and opportunity from the extraordinary deeds of the Americans who preceded us.
This nation of unequaled wealth and power, of freedom and opportunity, was given to us. But America is not, and never will be, a finished project. It is always, in the words of Woodrow Wilson, aborning.
We have been handed a work in progress, one that can evolve for good or for ill.
American democracy makes a wager on each citizen. The deal is simple: with freedom comes obligation, with liberty comes duty. If American citizens do not fulfill their side of that wager, democracy is doomed.
Learn and Teach
So we must learn and we must teach our young people the words we live by in the Constitution, in the Declaration of Independence, and in the other grand documents of American history.
We must get into our bones and convey to others the basic concepts of representative democracy: the consent of the governed, the core institutions, the necessity of participation, and the avenues for action that are open to all of us.
And we must learn and teach about the institutions that bring life and permanence to those documents.
As Americans we owe a profound debt of gratitude for the actions of those who preceded us, and we have the obligation to transmit to those who follow after us an America that is even greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.
Strengthening Civic Skills
We need to strengthen the civic skills, knowledge, and virtue of our people. This means:
  • being aware of the size and diversity of views in this great and diverse country of over 300 million people, and how hard it is to make it work;
  • genuinely listening to our friends and neighbors, understanding their concerns;
  • understanding the importance of the great dialogue of democracy, of discussion and compromise and seeking common ground;
  • thinking critically, often in a noisy environment, and discerning the difference between mere slogans and substance;
  • and focusing on the common good, not just our own particular interests.
How much I am impressed with the obligations that representative democracy places on citizens. In developing and promoting civic skills we must be tenacious, because our problems are formidable — and we also have to be modest because of the magnitude of the challenge. Solutions come step by step, and not mile by mile.
Teaching How to Engage
If you ask them, most Americans want to be better people, living in better communities, in a better state, and in a better nation. Often, they want to become involved but don't know where to go, whom to talk to, what to do.
The job of civic education is to show people how to engage, how to participate, how to get off the sidelines and into the action.
I like the attitude of the builder who said: "I cannot solve the world's problems, but I can help build this house."
Most Americans may not have the opportunity to engage to help resolve the really big problems: Fixing health care. Saving social security. Changing the tax code. Defending our nation against its enemies.
But all of us can engage effectively through small, incremental changes.
  • A school is built or refurbished.
  • Safe bicycle paths are added to local streets.
  • A polluted stream is cleaned up.
  • A safety signal goes up at a dangerous railroad intersection.
  • A student awakens to the joys of learning.
  • A worthy but economically disadvantaged young person is given a chance to enter medical school.
  • A young woman steps into the world with more opportunity than her mother.
These are not insignificant examples. They save and improve lives and communities. Countless small actions that improve the quality of the lives of our people are the wellspring of democracy.
Civic Learning
I am not going to tell you anything you don't already know about civic learning. You are all experts in the field. I came to it rather late, when I retired from Congress in 1999 and we established the Center on Congress at Indiana University.
I started with a very simple concept for the Center. I would write a few articles, teach some classes, maybe write a book, and that would be the Center.
Things have evolved far beyond what I ever imagined.
Working in partnership with organizations such as Chuck's, and with scholars at Indiana University and elsewhere in higher education, and with classroom teachers, and with many others, we have developed an array of resources and programs that reach out to a broad spectrum of Americans, helping them understand Congress, and teaching them how to communicate their concerns to Congress, so it may truly be the responsive "people's branch" that the framers intended.
I learned quickly that to teach young people to be good citizens, we have to reach them where they are. Usually these days, that is online. I'm a bit of a relic — I read newspapers. And at the Center we produce an array of print publications that teachers use in their classrooms.
But increasingly, of course, young people learn through information technology. So online teaching tools are a very big priority for us. We devote a lot of time and resources to developing interactive, creative tools for getting kids interested in Congress and citizenship.
This is new ground for me. In one of our new educational products, the Virtual Congress, I appear as an avatar. A few years ago, I didn't know what an avatar was; now, I am one!
But it is vital for us to experiment, to explore new methods to promote civic learning. The importance of our task, the urgency of it, demands innovative thinking.
Benefits of Engagement
Civic engagement is not only the hallmark of our democracy, it is the greatest antidote for cynicism.
When we engage in our community, we no longer feel distant from the centers of power in that community. We come to understand our own communities, and appreciate how we can influence change.
Perhaps most important, we gain an appreciation for the hard work of democracy, how to understand different points of view and forge a consensus behind a course of action towards a solution.
When we engage, we lessen the distance between ourselves and those who govern. And we gain understanding and appreciation for our country that can make it and the ongoing experiment of American democracy stronger.
We hear a lot these days about leadership — leadership, of course, matters. But the key issue in the country today is not leadership, it is citizenship. We need to ask more of ourselves — and our fellow citizens.
I am grateful that you accept the responsibility of working to strengthen our American citizenry. Fortunately there are many more Americans like you — but not enough. Our charge is to spread this message anew to all Americans.
Self-government is a monumental achievement — one of the greatest achievements in all the world's history — but it does not perpetuate itself automatically. Nowhere is it written in the stars that America will endure and that our system of representative democracy will be preserved. It is the responsibility of each succeeding generation to make that come true.
So, I plead for the old civic and personal values to renew America:
  • a sense of moral and mutual obligation and personal responsibility;
  • a sense of personal sacrifice, a sense that we do not live by bread or wealth alone;
  • a sense of observing the rules of life, as well as the rules of law;
  • a sense of being an active agent for the common good, not a passive victim;
  • a sense that this nation is more than a clash of self interests, with each person and each enterprise trying to maximize its own position and share of the wealth, but rather, it is a nation that strives for the common good;
  • a sense that we must not just discuss the civic virtues, but also live them by undertaking concrete projects to improve the lives of our fellow citizens;
  • a sense that, as James Madison insisted, virtue is needed for self-government;
  • and a sense that citizens working together in a common endeavor and for a common good is at the very heart of what this country is all about.
Is our civic condition strong enough to meet the challenges of this day? The answer to that question lies in your hands.
We must meet the challenge of civic renewal:
  • as individuals,
  • families,
  • neighborhoods,
  • communities,
  • faith-based institutions,
  • and governing institutions.
It is, after all, our democracy — the work of many hands, including our own.