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What we owe our young people

POSTED: May 8, 2008 5:00 a.m.
You cannot step into an American community today without finding a lively conversation about educating our children. How to boost math and science learning, whether our children are reading and writing enough, what constitutes a "quality" education. All of this figures in the national schooling debate and its thousands of local echoes.
Yet with all respect, I believe this debate is missing a fundamental piece: A recognition that a well-rounded education includes the civic virtues. We owe our young people not just a solid grounding in math, science, English and a foreign language, but also an education in democratic citizenship, because in all too many places they're not getting it. Too many youth lack a basic understanding of our representative democracy, and we reap the sour fruit of this in many Americans' disengagement and lost opportunities to contribute to our society.
What would a decent civic education look like? It begins, I think, with a robust account of the American story: the full, unvarnished history of our successes and failures, our ideals and the human flaws that jeopardize them, our progress over the centuries and the detours we've taken along the way. That is the best way to learn how crucial the involvement of ordinary citizens has been in setting the course of our history. It is also the best way to gain an appreciation for how deeply experimental our system remains, with basic questions about the use and allocation of power that were present at the beginning still in play.
Indeed, understanding that we continue to evolve as a nation, I'm convinced, is the strongest spur not just to participating in local and national civic life, but to appreciating the skills democracy imposes on us: consensus-building, compromise, civility and rational discourse.  The only way to learn them intimately, of course, is through experience, the hard but rewarding work of face-to-face engagement with political leaders and our fellow citizens. But learning how crucial they are to making our system work, both in the trenches and at every level of government, that is something our schools can teach.
So, too, we need to teach that citizenship carries with it certain responsibilities; staying informed, volunteering, speaking out, asking questions, writing letters, signing petitions, joining organizations, finding common ground on contentious issues, working in ways small and large to improve our neighborhoods and communities and to enrich the quality of life for all citizens.
Civic education can help young people feel a part of something larger than themselves by connecting them to the splendid traditions of American democratic involvement, and by showing them how to make the most of their talents to leave their communities better places than they found them.
Withholding civic education, on the other hand, means denying the people who will build our future the means to help them do so. The 21st century is bringing with it some very tough challenges; terrorism, nuclear proliferation, declining energy resources, global warming, a rapidly changing economy, competition from China, India, and nations still emerging as global players immigration, new diseases, fundamental questions of governance. Our young people cannot hope to be successful in confronting those challenges if they have no idea how to get along together in an open and democratic society.
In the end, then, a good civic education has to include not just history and the skills demanded by democracy, but the qualities that undergird collaboration and engagement:
• mutual respect, so that results of lasting consequence can be achieved;
• tolerance, so that our citizens know how to navigate a diverse world and to value differences rather than fear them;
• deliberation and consultation, so that open debate can lead us to consensus rather than conflict;
• empathy, so that we can understand the worries and motivations of others;
• civility, so that we can disagree and still find common ground;
• humility, so that we keep in mind that we might be wrong and are open to learning from others;
• honesty, so that our common deliberations are open and straightforward;
• and resolve, so that we can overcome setbacks and surmount challenges.
These are not matters for classroom education alone, of course. For the most important quality a democracy must possess is the ability to transmit its needs and values through the experience of participating in it. Our families, our communities, our political system as a whole all serve as teachers.
We adults have been given the great opportunity of political freedom, and we have a heavy obligation to pass on the knowledge of where it came from and how to sustain it. But teaching our civic virtues has to start somewhere, and I would argue that a key place is in our schools.

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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