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On the path to good citizenship

POSTED: November 27, 2007 5:00 a.m.
“My job is to make the country work, and help it to come together.”
I don’t remember the name of the young woman who said that, but I certainly remember the circumstances. It was at a high school in the southern Indiana congressional district I once represented. As a member of Congress, you get asked regularly to speak at high schools, and I always tried to comply.
I also tried to meet with small groups of students beforehand to talk about what being an American meant to them. I was especially interested in how they saw the responsibilities of citizenship — and in particular, whether they saw dimensions to it that went beyond simply voting.
It has been a while since I made visits like these. Those young people have grown up and, I’m sure, forgotten our conversations. I still think about their comments, however. I do not want to suggest they were typical; indeed they were not. That’s one reason their statements have stayed with me for years. Then, too, they were so young — most of them couldn’t even vote — yet displayed none of the disconnection or apathy that we so commonly attribute to teenagers.
Some, for instance, were focused on their own road forward. “My job is for me to become the best I can be,” one student said, while another added, “Mine is to overcome all the obstacles, and succeed.” Both reflected not only the opportunities this country affords its residents, but the obligation this imposes on us to take advantage of them despite the challenges we sometimes encounter. “My job is to have a good, decent, hard-working family,” said another — a purely personal goal, in one sense, but a boon to society in another.
Other students thought of their responsibilities in what amounted to moral terms. “My responsibility is to do the right thing, always,” one told me, while another was determined “to respect everyone, get along with them, treat them decently, work with them, and try to help them.” This emphasis on integrity and generosity of spirit acknowledged that how we behave toward others is also a part of good citizenship — that sometimes, doing the right thing can reverberate throughout a community.
Much of the time, the young people I spoke with thought of citizenship in broad terms. They’d obviously pondered what it meant to be a citizen of their own towns, their nation or even the world. They talked about “making my town and my neighborhood better, and improving them in any way I can,” as one put it. They spoke about having “been given a marvelous country, and it is our job to pass it on better than we found it.”
They talked, too, about their responsibility as U.S. citizens to promote this country’s strengths elsewhere: “My job,” one said, “is to help keep the country free — and to share that freedom with others.” And they saw a role for themselves not just in political terms, but in environmental ones, speaking of their obligation to “protect the earth: the water, soil and air,” as one said.
These sentiments were often couched in simple terms, but they expressed complex ideas. In particular, they took it as a given that part of being a citizen is building on the strengths or doing all one can to reverse the shortfalls of the communities and the nation they lived in.
Not only did their comments show real insight into our democracy, they brought home a crucial point: There is no single path to good citizenship. These students all saw different ways of being a citizen, and I don't think it's over-reaching to say that our country thrives because it gives us all the chance to interpret our place in it in our own fashion.
Those who work hard and focus on raising a family or on becoming experts in their field contribute just as surely as those who tutor in schools, organize rallies to fight some injustice or volunteer to protect U.S. interests abroad. Indeed, as a society we depend on multiple interpretations of what makes for good citizenship.
Every time I left one of these high-school gatherings, I felt reinvigorated and reassured. For what came home to me time after time as I talked with those students was that we would face a grim future indeed if they weren't thinking about citizenship at all.

Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.
 

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