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
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
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
Or would you rather just go Home?