What should a good citizen do?
The question of “what a good citizen should do” in a democratic society begins with an assumption of a universal ethical imperative within democracy. Perhaps this follows from the concept of democracy itself. At the onset of American independence, the writers of the Declaration stated that it was self-evident that “all men are created equal” and that with that equality of nature comes unalienable Rights, such as Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. A democratic society could secure these rights through a government that derives its just power from the “consent of the governed.”
Consent of the governed. Perhaps, too often we overlook this essential democratic freedom, the Freedom of Consent. The idea that democracy requires consent of the governed supports an imperative for the people of the democracy, the good citizens, to actively give a say, to give a consent or descent – through speech, voting, the practice of beliefs or religions, exercising their other freedoms – on the positions and actions of the government.
More than ever, it is vital that American citizens actively exercise their own rights and freedoms, while also working to promote the rights and freedoms of others. Through both speech and actions, we must declare our consent or descent and encourage the equal participation of other citizens to do the same. Howard Budin stated that “the heart of democratic action is collaborative decision making,” making “decisions with their fellow citizens to improve their lives and the life of the community or nation.” In this way, all democratic citizens are benefited by the increased voice and involvement of others, even of those with whom we disagree. To asymptotically approximate the ideals of democracy, citizens must have equitable opportunities, freedoms and rights to participate… and must actively exercise these opportunities, freedoms and rights within the collaborative society.
Too often in education, we speak of citizenship simply in terms of being honest, neighborly or kind. Joel Westheimer and Joseph Kahane call this the “personally responsible citizen,” though they warn that this concept of citizenship alone does not necessarily foster equality, justice and democracy. “Indeed, government leaders in a totalitarian regime would be as delighted as leaders in a democracy if their young citizens… don’t do drugs; show up at school; show up at work; give blood; help others during a flood; recycle; pick up litter; clean up a park; [and] treat old people with respect,” they write in “What Kind of Citizen? The Politics of Educating for Democracy.”
Somehow, the concepts of participation and activism are missing from much of today’s education on citizenship. In fact, when I asked, “What should a good citizen do?” to my twelve year old daughter at the dinner table yesterday, she responded with “don’t kill people,” even though she is active in community service and often engages discussions about social justice at her Montessori middle school. She did not automatically associate those participatory practices with her responsibilities as a “citizen.” Perhaps this is because what is often considered “good” behavior or citizenship at schools is not always aligned with the promotion of justice. Frequently, the “good” child in class is the one who follows the rules, even when those rules are enforced in unjust ways. It is important, especially in education, not to confuse the promotion of personal responsibility with that of standardization, compliance and obedience.
Instead, the good citizen needs to have the ability to transfer the qualities of personal responsibility to critical reflection, active participation (participatory citizen) and the promotion of social justice (justice-oriented citizen). The good citizen must go beyond personal responsibility to participate in giving consent or descent, in effecting change and in encouraging equity. In this way, the rights and freedoms of all citizens can be maintained and expanded in order to improve the quality of life for citizens and the collective life of the community or nation.
As educators, there are many opportunities to exercise our roles as citizens and to promote participation and social action in our students:
- Register to vote, vote, and encourage others to vote, too!
- Investigate educational issues being discussed in politics, not just in the Presidential race, but also at the local and state level.
- Call, email and write letters to your School Board or Congressmen, supporting funding for education.
- Provide community service learning opportunities to your students – serve meals at a homeless shelter; coordinate a canned food drive; raise funds to support cancer research or the creation of a local park.
- Engage your classes in student-driven action projects and competitions that focus on solving real world problems, like Heifer International Education Programs or the Siemens We Can Change the World Challenge.
Today is September 11th. Yes, we mourn and remember the lives lost and the bravery of so many Americans eleven years ago, but we also celebrate the freedoms we enjoy in this democratic society. Freedoms that we shouldn’t take for granted. Freedoms that were earned with blood, sweat and tears. Freedoms that we should exercise and should harness to advocate for equal rights for all people… here in the United States and around the world.