“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
John F. Kennedy
Walk into a school, a store, or anywhere for that matter, and you will soon get a feel for the people who learn, work, or live there. Whether there is gum stuck under the desks and plastic wrappers on the grounds, or a butterfly garden and a recycling bin.
For a perfect indicator of how we are raising future citizens, watch 150 kids during lunchtime in a public school cafeteria with only a handful of adults around. In select locations, you might feel like you are in a commercial eating establishment, but in most situations, you feel like you have been dropped into the middle of Lord of the Flies. It is both appalling and inexcusable. And we have no one to blame but ourselves.
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Raising children to become good citizens doesn't happen by chance. It happens because parents — as well as schools and communities — work to develop good citizens.
And we need to do a better job.
In Education Next, Crafting Good Citizens, professor Stephen Macedo, director of the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University, says Americans are concerned about the current state of citizenry and the ability of schools to provide up-and-coming young adults with the opportunities and knowledge necessary to become good citizens. Besides the requisite community service hours, most every form of civic engagement in this population has declined.
In 1972, 50 percent of young adults 18-29 voted in the presidential election. By the 1996 election, only 33% voted. Even though young Americans are more educated than ever before, they pay far less attention than previous generations did to news and events.
Civic Education Falling by the Wayside
So why is this happening? The family remains the primary socializer in our society. If kids are taught not to throw garbage on the floor at home, why would they do it at school? If they are taught compassion at home, why is there bullying? Because schools, by themselves, cannot be expected to transform apathetic, self-absorbed consumers into active and engaged citizens.
But evidence does suggest that when family, schools and the community join together to teach students about citizenry — current events, the political process and how to get involved — students are more willing and able to practice good citizenship. Research findings suggest that:
▪ Formal instruction in key elements of American history and governmental structure is a crucial building block of civic education.
▪ Active discussion of current local, national and international events improve students’ critical thinking and communication skills and promote the discussion of political issues outside the classroom.
▪ More than 80 percent of high school seniors are participating in some form of volunteer activity, but more could be done to link community service with classroom instruction.
▪ Extracurricular activities are known to contribute to a student's tendency to become and remain civically engaged.
▪ Until the 1960s, high school students typically took up to three courses in civics, democracy and government. Today, due to the focus on high stakes testing on math and reading, most students take only one government-related course. Social studies as a whole appears to be in decline. While high school community service is encouraged, it is removed from the relevance of the curriculum.
▪ Giving students a voice in the management of the classroom and the school may increase civic skills and attitudes.
Role of Citizens in Democracies
Thriving democracies need citizens to play important roles. The more children learn to develop skills and abilities that support citizenship, the greater the mark they leave on the world. Parents and educators play influential roles in how kids view citizenship and how they turn ideas and passion into action.
Price-Mitchell says that in a democracy, citizenship is demonstrated in three ways: responsible actions, leadership and innovative thinking.
▪ Being Responsible: Children learn from a young age to be kind, empathetic and respectful. These internal strengths (morals and values) connect them to others. In addition to the many community and private youth organizations that support positive values, it falls to the parents to instill and reinforce these morals and values, and to practice compassion and anger management at home.
When parents model and support responsible character behaviors (honesty, fairness and compassion) they foster these qualities in their children and help create responsible citizens. Citizens who do not litter, donate to food drives, recycle their trash and help others during a crisis.
The Miami Herald Parade article “Growing Good Citizens” featured the Kennedy family — the iconic family of community service leaders. One of the main messages in the article was that it was the parents, Rose and Joe Kennedy, who instilled in their children a sense of obligation to understand and contribute to the world outside of the Kennedy clan. All the children were all required to do something to make the world better.
▪ Improving the Community: In order for communities to prosper, people must take leadership roles. Children have a great capacity to be leaders. They can inspire and mobilize others, such as the story of 10-year-old Eden Eskaros who, on a visit to Mexico, noticed children were not wearing shoes. When she returned home, she mobilized her community and collected and sent more than 1,000 pair of shoes to the village.
When children learn to improve their communities, they acquire problem solving, planning, time management and marketing skills. These kinds of citizens coordinate food drives, develop recycling programs, or take part in community-action committees.
▪ Help Solve Problems: Communities, like businesses, require innovation and flexibility. By adolescence, kids are capable of understanding complex issues and exploring the root causes of problems. Thriving democracies have citizens who question and respectfully debate how to improve society — how to change established systems that are inefficient or unjust.
High school community service-learning offers students unique opportunities to link what they learn in the classroom to real-world situations in their communities. Service-learning experiences during adolescence train teens to become innovative citizens — people who see beyond surface causes and effect change in their communities and beyond. These citizens question why people are hungry, debate the solutions to global warming, or investigate the relationship between race and poverty.
Citizenry: Morals, Virtues and a Closing Thought
David Brooks' in his refreshing New York Times Op-Ed piece, “The Moral Bucket List,” shared his feelings about meeting people who radiate an inner light. He said these people seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. They often look after other people and as they do, they are happy. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all.
Brooks goes on to analyze society's seemingly two sets of virtues — résumé virtues and eulogy virtues.
He said résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. Eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. How you made your mark on the world. Not what your country did for you, but what you did for your country.
In the end, it is the eulogy virtues that are the most important. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies kids need for career success than the qualities needed to radiate that inner light.
Over time, our children have become more skilled in building external careers than in creating inner character and citizenry. But Brooks implores us to work to achieve a moral bucket list. In doing so, we become better citizens, and we create better citizens of the future.
Laurie Futterman ARNP is a former Heart Transplant Coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.