Katie Reen graciously shared a copy of her oral exam paper incorporating her insighhts from the National Academy at Occidental College last summer. Katie’s students are 11 and 12 years old and she explains, “The concept of my paper is a letter to my students, past, present and future about what I wish for them as people and as citizens.”
Below is the section related to citizenship…
Now you know that no love letter written to you from me would be complete without my wishes for you as citizens of our community, our country and our world. And you may think that it is slightly strange that I would transition to the topic of politics in a letter about religion and spirituality as most see them as completely unconnected, or even the antithesis of one another. But I actually see them as very connected. You see when I think of our membership in a democratic society, I consider it to be a covenantal relationship. Each one of us enters this sacred compact and agrees to jointly protect and defend one another’s freedom and liberty. The preservation of this covenant ought to be the principle business of our work as citizens.
While I don’t want to put an undue amount of pressure on you, I do think you all should know that I fundamentally believe that the survival of our democracy rests on your shoulders. Our Founding Fathers designed our unique form of democracy as a “Grand Experiment.” They naively believed that the people, yes the people, could be trusted to guard their liberties and build a society based on justice and the common good. And though they borrowed their ideas from the great thinkers of antiquity including Aristotle, Cicero, Locke and Hobbs, their ideas were revolutionary and a clear departure from the past.
Although the system they created is less than perfect, I would venture to say that you enjoy more security, more safety, more opportunity, and more freedom in the United States than people in any other part of the world. If you want this experiment to succeed – your energy, enthusiasm and service is required. George Marshall, an American general, once said that, “Democracy is the most demanding of all forms of government in terms of the energy, imagination, and public spirit required of the individual.” You, the individual, the citizen, are the most crucial component of our nation’s survival. Just as it has been suggested that your teachers are not teaching you enough about religion and spirituality, it has also been suggested that they are not teaching you enough about the foundations of government and your role in its upkeep. There is some irony in this phenomenon, as the original purpose of public education was to educate the citizen for it was feared that without an educated and virtuous citizenry, no republic could survive. Until last summer, I would have considered myself to be a teacher that Thomas Jefferson would be proud of, as I always taught my students about their government. However, after attending a three week long academy sponsored by the Center for Civic Education, I learned that I had been going about this study in my classroom all wrong.
You see, government is not about checks and balances and rules for elections….it is much more than this. It is about a compact, a social covenant, where people voluntary bind themselves together with the goal of attaining what Aristotle characterized as “the good life.” Without government man can be left in a brutish state of nature. Aristotle even went as far as to say that, “He who is without a city is clanless and lawless and heartless who at once plunges into a passion of war…” Because of this, people agree to unite and form a common bond for the mutual protection of their life, liberty and property. Many trace this concept all the way back to the covenant the Israelites made with God when Moses led them out of Egypt. God promised the Israelites that He would lead them to safety if they agreed to be obedient to His higher law. So, whenever you think of the government, don’t think about it in terms of some abstract machine removed from the people. Think of it as a sacred bond created and entered into by the people.
And in our government, you need to know that you – yes you – play the most critical role in its functioning. The citizen is the foundation of our democracy. Aristotle defined the citizen as one who participates in power. I hope that each of you takes this charge seriously and shares in the power that you already hold. Don’t for one minute think that you are insignificant in this system. Justice Louis Brandeis once said that, “The only title in our democracy superior to that of the President is the title of citizen.” Think of people in the government as the actors but you are the author of their scripts. Remember that it is you that consents to be governed and it is you that grants government officials the opportunity to serve on your behalf.
Many recent studies have shown that young people, such as you, are much less likely today to follow politics and take an active role in the political process than any previous generation. In fact, since the 26th Amendment extending voting rights to 18 year olds in 1971, voter participation in the 18-24 year old category has actually decreased by 15%. I don’t believe this is due to laziness on the part of our youth but rather a systematic alienation of young people from civic discourse by those who currently hold power. If we do not take steps to right this wrong in your generation, I have great fear that our nation’s posterity will not have the opportunity to enjoy the great freedoms and liberties we are each afforded today. The French philosopher Montesquieu once quipped, “The tyranny of a prince is not so dangerous to the public welfare as the apathy of a citizen in a democracy.” In short, good men will be ruled by evil men if they collectively choose to be indifferent to public affairs and the political process.
In order for you to fulfill your role as citizen, I wish that each of you pursue every opportunity to continue your education for there is no freedom without knowledge. You must engage your mind in as many ways as possible. Read the great works, study the story of our past, discuss your thoughts, questions and wonderings with people that stimulate your thinking and consider ideas from a variety of perspectives. So many adults are stuck in the here and now and are therefore unable and uninterested in learning the lessons our history has provided. Don’t be one of them. Cicero would tell you that, “To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child.” Make him proud. Learn as much as you can from our past and carry the teachings forward in your thinking. And, as you read from multiple perspectives and traditions, don’t feel the need to embrace everyone. Consider all viewpoints but think for yourself. Aristotle would tell you that, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” So ponder all perspectives but rely on your own intellect and understanding to determine your position.
When considering your role as citizen, it is my true hope that you will dedicate your time to the service of others. Marian Wright Edelman once remarked that, “Service is the rent we pay for living.” I hope you are able to think of it in this way. I hope you wake each day considering what you might be able to do to make the world a better place. Take the opportunity each and every day to do something for another. Jackie Robinson, my favorite baseball player, ever famously said, “A life isn’t significant except for its impact on other lives.” Make your life significant. I have found that for every act of service I have given, much more has been returned to me. Gandhi believed that, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” I could not agree more with his statement. For every moment I have served you as your teacher, I have received an exponential amount of blessings. Cicero said that, “As you have sown so shall you reap,” so consider the kind of bounty you wish to receive in your life and give accordingly.
It is also a dream of mine that each of my students works to eradicate the world of injustice in their coveted roles as citizens. Thomas Jefferson said that, “Government is the strongest of which every man feels himself a part.” And if any man or woman is made to feel unequal in the eyes of the law, our covenant is broken and must be repaired. Historically, we have many blemishes. It embarrasses me to think that originally only white, rich men were viewed as worthy of the title of citizen. Or that our Founding Fathers who espoused equality owned slaves. Or that black children were systematically separated from white students and forced to endure a second class citizenship. But thankfully, some of these past injustices have been corrected through collective vigilance and determination. If citizens had not risen up these same injustices might still have continued. Horace Mann once stated that, “A different world cannot be built by indifferent people.” Take this to heart and never allow yourself to contribute to injustice in any form. Plato believed that, “He who commits injustice is ever made more wretched than he who suffers it.” Never let someone suffer on your watch.
As you ponder your role in our democracy, I challenge you to think of your service as citizen not just to the town or city you currently reside in but rather as a member of the global community. Even Cicero subscribed to this philosophy. He stated that you are not a “resident in some particular locality surrounded by man made walls, but a citizen of the whole world as though it is a single city.” I hope that you view injustice and inhumanity in any corner of our universe as unacceptable. Ridding the world of cruelty and injustice must be a cornerstone of our work as citizens. As Gandhi said you must, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
Now I know that routing out injustice might seem like a difficult task as just one citizen. But the good news is – you are not alone. We are all part of this sacred covenant and together the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Margaret Mead is famous for saying that we should, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, commited citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” And just as the Buddhists believe that the gem is in your pocket, so are all the tools you need to do this work. No matter how rich or poor you are in mind, spirit and material, you have all that you need to do the work of citizen. Teddy Roosevelt urged citizens during his presidency to, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” Although his words are very simple, the message is prolific. Use the talents, the gifts, the resources and the knowledge that you have today to make our world a better place. And though the business of preserving our compact is difficult work, Cicero would tell you that, “The greater the difficulty, the greater the glory.”
When Benjamin Franklin was leaving the Constitutional Convention he was asked by a group of people what type of government had been created. His reply, “A republic, if you can keep it.” Albert Einstein theorized that, “The strength of the Constitution lies entirely in the determination of each citizen to defend it. Only if every single citizen feels duty bound to do his share in this defense are the constitutional rights secure.” It is my sincere hope that each one of you feels that you play a vital role in the preservation of our compact and therefore possess the determination to protect and defend this fragile covenant. In order for this “Grand Experiment” to succeed, your energy, enthusiasm and commitment is required. The good news is I have total faith and confidence that you have all that is needed to do this difficult work. You are all well on your way to becoming noble and virtuous statesman and woman and I know our covenant is in excellent hands.
Now no letter from me would be complete without some words of Irish wisdom. To
close, I share this blessing with you:
An Old Irish Blessing
May love and laughter light your days,
and warm your heart and home.
May good and faithful friends be yours,
wherever you may roam.
May peace and plenty bless your world
with joy that long endures.
May all life’s passing seasons
bring the best to you and yours!
With Great Love and Affection,
P.S. Isn’t it great to be alive?