Another essay I was fooling with back in 2000.

Citizens of the Republic


Robert M Brown

There has been a lot of talk about education in this election year, but one aspect of the discussion has been curiously absent. Teaching our young people to read, and the fundamentals of math, science, and technology is important, but there is one aspect of our children's education that is sorely lacking; we aren't teaching anything about how to be a citizen.

For centuries thinkers on the subject have noted that the success of a republic is dependent on the virtue of its citizens. That is, as long as society produced people who are good and honorable, who are willing to take part in public affairs, and who have a stake in seeing that those public affairs are well handled, that Republic will remain prosperous and free. When the virtue of the citizenry declines, so does the Republic.

While never forgetting the basic academic education that a citizen should have (there is a direct link between a good education and economic prosperity, and economic prosperity brings reduced crime and civil disorder; it is in society's best interest to have as many prosperous citizens as possible), there are two other areas where the citizen should be well grounded.

The first is a moral foundation. This can be philosophical, but is usually religious, and it is critical to the health of a republic. What religion or philosophy a person chooses as their moral grounding is really not very important; what is important is that there be one. Even Machiavelli, widely regarded as an atheist in his own time, and amoral in most times, said, "...there can be no surer indication of the decline of a country than to see divine worship neglected." Without some sort of moral framework through which to view events, the citizen cannot make value judgements based on right or wrong and must instead be told what is right or wrong, or make decisions solely on amoral grounds. This results in the question of right or wrong being settled by lawsuits or legislation, quite often to the detriment of the welfare and personal freedoms of the citizenry children raised with no sense of right or wrong, and acceptance of corruption in public officials, which leads to a poisoning of the public arena and erects a barrier to keep out good people who might otherwise seek to enter public service.

There is no easy solution to this problem. Religion cannot be taught in the public schools (there are too many to avoid favoring one by doing so). But a good start would be to stop deliberately excluding moral values from public life. In the name of constitutionality we have unconstitutionally persecuted religion in the public sector, to our detriment. What the Constitution says is, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...." That is, not that religion must be excluded from public life, but that Congress may not pass any law making one religion privileged over the others, nor my Congress pass any law restricting the free practice of any religion. In overzealous application of the first clause, we have violated the second.

The other area where the citizen should be well grounded is in civic knowledge; the history, laws, government, and traditions of the republic. We require this of naturalized citizens, but only go through the motions for the native born. How poor a job we do of this is evidenced by the amount of attention paid to the presidential candidates' budget plans, just to cite one example. (The President does not set the budget.) You can test your own knowledge very easily; the INS web page has sample questions from the test that immigrants must pass to become citizens. Would you pass?

The effect of this poor education on our body politic is immediate and obvious. A lack of understanding of the system fosters cynicism and voter apathy. Voter apathy lets special interests and a closed circle of professional politicians get a tighter hold on government, which breeds more voter cynicism and apathy. The cycle continues until there is a complete disconnect between the average citizen and the ruling class.

Fortunately, the solution is fairly simple, if not necessarily easily executed. 'Civics,' which is supposed to teach these things, is already part of the curricula, it is just not well taught. The students are left with no feeling that it is anything that really matters to them. Young voters especially feel left out of the process because candidates for office know that that age group has an exceptionally low voter turnout and so can be safely ignored. Again, a cycle of apathy and apparent powerlessness is at work. The only way to break the cycle is for this age group to become politically active. Vote. Participate in the process. Only then will the politicians listen to them.

But to become politically active young voters must be motivated, and the best way to do that is for them to grow up with a good example. We must all take part in the process. Voting is the bare minimum; a good citizen should be familiar with the issues, how the system works, and how it got that way. A citizen should know what his or her vote means. Read the Declaration and the Constitution. Learn what they mean and pass that along to your children. If there is an issue you feel strongly about, contact your legislators; they do listen, and so few people take the trouble that a few letters or phone calls go a long way. Our system really does work, but it takes involved citizens to make it work.

Recent decades have seen more and more power slide into the hands of the government, at all levels, and an increasingly passive electorate has let it happen. But we are still Citizens, not Subjects, and a Citizenry with the knowledge to understand the issues, the moral basis to know what is right, and the understanding to know how to do what is right, those people rule the government, not the other way around, and rule their own destinies as well.

Disagree? Don't forget to flame me.
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Copyright 2001, 2011, Robert M Brown, All Rights Reserved.