No Civics, No Civilization

America is my home, and the lens through which I view it is rooted in my own personal history. I was not born here.  My Welsh father married my Texan (and Daughter of the American Revolution) mother, who delivered me in London, England.  We returned stateside when I was three, never returning to the United Kingdom.  When I enquired as to why we never visited my birthplace, my father replied, “It’s bloody cold over there.” Dad was a professor of microbiology, and learning about everything was his passion.  I recall him studying to obtain his citizenship when I was child. The content wasn’t complicated compared with what he knew about genetics, history, and Latin – but like everything he tackled intellectually, he completely devoted himself to learning every nuance of the material. And the content was vital to him “becoming” an American. My father also loved American football (he was a huge Cowboys fan), and even when his health declined, he always stood with hand over heart during the playing of the National Anthem. Reflecting on what it means to act as an American, not simply be an American, is a behavior that was reinforced by both my parents during my upbringing.

Our nation – my home –  is currently experiencing upheaval with regard to our obligations as American citizens and our mission as a country.  I believe that a central issue of this upheaval is the notion that, “one person, one vote” (as defined by our Constitution, its amendments, and subsequent court cases) is fundamental to our democracy.  To function successfully as a democratic nation, the equality doctrine is rooted in an expectation that citizens are informed, rational agents in our governance.  Unfortunately, the decline of civics education in our public schools, coupled with the ability of unchecked social media communications to make every voice count – regardless of whether that voice is researched and reasoned or not – is undermining the democratic goals of the Founding Fathers. From law to science, objective truths do exist. The Earth is not flat, gerrymandering does impact voting outcomes, and ulcers are caused by bacteria, not stress. It is our obligation as citizens to investigate, quantify, and propagate only that information which we know to be true.  “A lie stands on one leg, the truth on two,” (Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard's Almanac, 1735) – and while it may be easy today to populate conversations, podcasts, and Twitter feeds with “alternative facts,” only the truth stands stable when pushed by unbiased evaluation.

Asking students in American classrooms not only, “What do you know?” but also, “How do you know it?” in Socratic discourse, requires more work of the educator than simple didactic, knowledge-level instruction.  It entails planning, practicing, deep knowledge, and an appetite for debate to build the habits of mind in our young adults that allow them to fully enjoy American liberties. It also requires more work of the student: he cannot passively absorb information and expect to be labeled a winner when he’s merely displaying the disposition of a participant.  The student must struggle, sometimes failing, and always re-engaging in his never-ending role as a learner striving for success. 

Questioning, seeking truth, and demonstrating drive and responsibility are the obligations of every American, and the rewards are autonomy and freedom. Educating teachers in how to foster civic behaviors among our students is fundamental to our continuance as a strong and visionary nation. It is the duty of every American to know and live what immigrants must learn for naturalization, and to shun the ease of lazy group-think. As an educator, I feel obligated and privileged to model these behaviors for my students each day. This begins with laying down my tweeting phone and investigating, cogitating, and discussing to cut through the white noise. And for me, it also includes picking up my hand to heart, like my father and mother, in recognition of our hard-won freedoms.  For others, this recognition is observed with different behaviors – we don’t all have to agree on the way we exhibit our Americanism.  Ultimately, “we have a right, also, in various ways, to act upon our unfavorable opinion of any one, not to the oppression of his individuality, but in the exercise of ours.” (John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, 1859)  Whether born American or made American, it’s both our right and responsibility to act American.

Photo Credit: Andy Blackledge,