What It Takes To Be A Citizen

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Knowing the Constitution and American history are important if you live in this country, but so are the skills of citizenship. Former Congressman Lee Hamilton explains “What It Takes To Be A Citizen.”

A few weeks ago, the federally run National Assessment of Educational Progress issued its latest “report card” on civics education in the United States. You can get a sense of what it found from The New York Times headline: “Civics Education Called National Crisis." 

Most press coverage of the report card focused on students’ precarious knowledge of our system of government. While fourth graders seem to have made progress over previous years, just a quarter of high school seniors, the report noted, showed proficiency in the basics of civic life. An alarming percentage of eighth graders proved ignorant of such basic constitutional notions as checks and balances, and majorities of 12th graders were unable to identify the use of the Census or know which level and agency of government to approach in order to influence public policy. 

Most of the coverage, though, missed the most striking aspect of the report. It did not just assess students’ knowledge of civics. It also assessed their civic skills. Being a citizen, the survey’s designers stressed, involves more than just knowing history and how things work. Asking students about voter participation, for instance, they also asked for ideas on how to improve it; only a fifth of students could come up with an answer. Outlining a problem students might encounter at school, they asked how students might go about resolving it cooperatively; in that case, just under half of the students gave an acceptable answer. 

The point is that citizenship requires both knowledge about government and the ability to be involved in governance. It means knowing how to identify and inform yourself about issues, explore and evaluate possible solutions, and then act to resolve problems. It demands that you know how to interact respectfully with others. And it asks that you accept responsibility for meeting your community’s and the nation’s challenges. 

This is asking a lot of citizens in our divided and contentious modern democracy. That’s because the prevailing winds blow hard against using these skills. The Pew Research Center for People and the Press, for instance, recently released a report noting that a majority of registered voters “prefer elected officials who stick to their positions” over those willing to compromise with people with whom they disagree — even though accommodating various points of view is a requirement for making our large and diverse republic work. 

And being able to sort out the difference between facts and slogans, and between the trivial and the consequential? Surely those are skills you’d want both political decision-makers and the average citizen to possess. But in an era when competing ideologies and opinions scrap endlessly for the upper hand, spin and misrepresentation of the truth have become legislative and electoral weapons — making it even more important that voters exercise discriminating judgment. 

This requires another trait that seems hard for us to acquire: a willingness to seek out media sources with which we don’t agree. It is possible these days to limit your reading and viewing solely to news and analysis that reconfirm what you already believe — to use the media, in other words, as your own ideological arms manufacturer, rather than to inform judicious political decision-making. But true citizenship asks us to be willing to hear what a broad range of thinkers and arguers have to say, so that we can both learn from them, come to our own conclusions, and work to build solutions. 

If the survey is right, then surely our schools must strive to do a better job of exposing students to the habits that would help build these basic civic skills. Then it is up to us to refine them by plunging into the public arena. 

Only by spending time with people who think differently, learning how to listen to them and to seek common ground, do we truly learn what it takes to make a diverse republic work. It’s only part of the equation to learn about the structure of government and civic involvement in school. To fulfill the role of citizen we also must be able to deploy our civic skills to make our neighborhoods and communities better places to live. “The only title in our democracy superior to that of President is the title of citizen,” Justice Louis Brandeis once said. True, but only if we use our civic skills to deserve it.