How do we unify 350 million people around ideas, principles, and beliefs? Historically, many ill-fated attempts to unite U.S. citizens behind the flag or other causes have been rooted in racism, sexism, religion, war, populism, and antiterrorism. Each of these attempts to unite us, have but momentarily satiated our goal of becoming one strong nation. However, when looking at the end game, these attempts have created a polar opposite effect, drawing a wedge between citizens as they attempt to justify our democratic principles with the actual parameters and allowances afforded to some in our society. We’ve paid the price time and time again. The most beautiful principles of our country are lost in an “us versus them” approach to democratic loyalty and belonging. It seems as though the barrier to civility and unification is insurmountable. Something isn’t working. Something must change.
A paradigm shift must occur in the way we teach what it means to be “American” and the responsibility that goes with it. What does being American mean? We aren’t an ethnically homogeneous nation, in fact at our core, we are a band of misfits- those seeking religious freedom, political asylum, and those stolen and transported from far away lands. And yet no matter how we arrived here, we all believe that we have inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. How might we capitalize on this feeling that exists in every citizen of this great country? How might we then use that moment to inspire each citizen to act as an informed member of society?
With great privilege comes great responsibility and that is where our country has failed miserably. In his inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy stated, “ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country.“ This should be the statement that begins every civics course across the country. What can you do for your country? This starts with teaching students why they should be personally invested to participate; which systems they can access to affect change; and what to expect when their first attempts fail. We rely heavily on the intrinsic motivation that people will engage in civics if given the knowledge about the system. This can be taken one step further to state that people will engage in civics if given the knowledge about how the system affects them.
Individuality is often associated with selfishness, but if we ask individuals to think introspectively about their place in their society, individuality becomes a person’s contribution to the greater good. I am an important member of my family, my community, my city, my state, my country, the world. When we teach our children to see their role in a variety of societies; that they and their peers are equally valued members at all of these levels; and that each of us are obligated to elevate the spaces in which we occupy, we begin to take an individualized approach to civic awareness and civic responsibility. We can ask deeper questions about equity. We can begin to value the diverse people and experiences unique to our country. We are motivated to act because we acknowledge that the system is only as effective as the individuals who participate in it.
Individuals are equal but their communities and circumstances are not the same. We can no longer fool ourselves into believing that civic participation is a homogeneous experience with the singular goal of getting bodies into a voting booth. As it stands, the current methodology of teaching civics and citizenship is failing. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) revealed that 23% of seniors reached a proficient level in civics in 2014. This means that 77% of seniors evaluated in 2014 were not ready to take their place as active and informed citizens. Do we need to keep asking why? There’s a lot of focus on why students (and adults) are not proficient- schools, teachers, curriculum, social systems. This is a 30,000 foot view of a problem that affects people. We need to pivot toward how we as a society can improve civic proficiency by bringing civics back down into the weeds. A new civics methodology should be designed to equip students with the necessary tools to engage with their society in an informed and enthusiastic way. Posing questions like:
Most of us believe ourselves to be limitless and filled with potential. We can thank our democratic beliefs and tenants for that. It’s bizarre that we have yet to productively exploit the one thing that actually makes America great- it’s individuals. People of color, women, immigrants, LGBTQ activists, have all fought for the expressed right to exist as an equal individual in this great country. No matter our class, our god, or our color, those of us living on United States soil believe in the promises our founders made to its citizens- past, present, and future. Teaching children and adults about the avenues in which they can take empowered and informed action is the first step toward an engaged citizenry. Encouraging individuals to see the problems that affect their community and their lives is the next step. Creating spaces and opportunities for individuals to participate toward making a society they want to live in, is the ultimate goal. Individualized civic learning can be the solution this country needs, saving our democracy one person at a time.
Read the Republic (is Still) At Risk white paper to learn more about the state of civic education in the United States today. Take the Democracy At Play civic challenge for families here. Join the discussion or share your model citizen behavior on Twitter using the hashtag: #DemocracyAtPlay.
I'm a former teacher and former college athlete, currently working to make life more equitable for all people. My mission is to get parents to partner with their child's teacher.