We have reduced citizen responsibility to voting. You hear it often: “Responsible citizens vote.” So it is interesting that responsibility has become a key issue in this election and it is clear that when the candidates talk about responsibility, they are talking about more than voting. In his acceptance speech, President Obama spoke about the rewards of responsibility, of the “shared responsibility” of citizens, and reminded the crowd that Americans “insist on personal responsibility.” Governor Romney emphasizes the importance of “personal responsibility.”
Several years ago I had a conversation with a high school American history and government teacher. She had been teaching for many years, and was an outstanding teacher who followed the curriculum requirements of her state and community. As we talked, she expressed confidence that she had done a good job teaching her students about their rights. That’s what the curriculum called for. She lamented, however, that the curriculum did not require, nor had she done as good a job, teaching students about their responsibilities.
We should not be surprised by this. Much of the current political, cultural, and social debate in America is framed around questions of self-interest: “What’s in it for me?” We vote for the local, state, and federal candidates whom we believe will assure us the most freedom, the lowest taxes, the best security, and the government services we want. Where and what do we teach ourselves — where and what do we teach our children — about responsibility?
The Constitution describes our form of government and provides the framework that allows government to function. The Constitution does not, however, describe the roles and responsibilities of citizens in our republic. Where are the lessons of responsible citizenship? Where is the citizens’ manual? Civic responsibility is not innate. It must be learned, and so it must be taught. Family is important, but schools have to play a major role in teaching responsibility. And an essential key tool for teaching citizen responsibility in this nation must be American history.
American history teaches those lessons. American history is the stories of citizens meeting the challenges of their time to build the republic and preserve it for a new generation. History teaches us how individuals took the ideas and theories of Enlightenment philosophers and created a new relationship between citizens and their government. History tells the stories of the shared sacrifice of citizens — citizen soldiers, citizen workers, citizen families, citizen leaders — struggling to defend those ideals in times of crisis and war. History is replete with stories of citizens risking their lives and fortunes and sacred honor — on Lexington Green, at the Seneca Falls Convention, with the Bonus Army on the Mall in Washington, D.C., and in the streets of Birmingham — to secure liberty and equality for each other. These people — these citizens — were certainly more than just voters.
These stories remind us that responsible citizens are engaged in their communities every day. Responsible citizens collaborate. They find common ground and compromise. They form coalitions to accomplish the things that are most important to them. History reminds us that it is our responsibility as citizens to be informed — to educate ourselves and understand the issues. History reminds us that citizens with whom we disagree have strong ideas and opinions, and it is our responsibility to do our best to understand them.
Most importantly, American history reminds us that we all share important, fundamental ideals. We all believe passionately in individual freedom as well as the necessity for equality. We all believe in the ownership of private property and also understand that we must build together the communities, states, and the nation in which we live. We all believe in the rule of law, but we also understand that government cannot legislate ethics. When asked to describe ourselves we declare that we are a unified American people, but we celebrate our differences and proudly identify with our racial, ethnic, national, and religious heritage.
There is no context for these ideals without American history. If we truly expect to have a robust debate in this country about responsible citizenship, then we need to start with ourselves. Engaged citizens are educated, informed citizens — informed about the history and context of the issues of our day. Responsible adults model the habits we hope to instill in our children. Responsible adults teach by example and provide the foundational education our young people need. That includes fulfilling our own civic responsibilities, but it also means teaching American history in our schools and in our homes. These young people are our legacy — they are the future of a responsible republic. Will you do your part?