Citizenship is a verb. Yes, I know Merriam-Webster says it is a noun: “the status of being a citizen.”
I am writing, however, about what we do or, more importantly, do not do with that status. The exercising, if you will, of our duties and responsibilities as citizens. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services defines these responsibilities as:
• Support and defend the Constitution.
• Stay informed of the issues affecting your community.
• Participate in the democratic process.
• Respect and obey federal, state, and local laws.
• Respect the rights, beliefs, and opinions of others.
• Participate in your local community.
• Pay income and other taxes honestly, and on time, to federal, state, and local authorities.
• Serve on a jury when called upon.
• Defend the country if the need should arise.
While all are important — and vital to keeping our republic, I might add — participation in the democratic process would seem to be the one upon which all the others rest.
With this in mind, I point out that the 2023-2024 school year will be the first where Indiana’s middle school students are required to take a one-semester civics course before starting high school. Civics — going briefly back to Merriam-Webster — is defined as “a social science dealing with the rights and duties of citizens.”
The course and its resulting academic standards are the result of Gov. Eric Holcomb signing House Bill 1384 into law in 2021. Hence, during the second semester of sixth grade, students will learn about the foundations and function of government and the role of citizens. Classroom discussions will also center around such things as the three branches of government, elections, and property taxes. The civics course aims to provide students with an initial foundation of civics education and some topics will be covered again during students’ senior year government class.
The genesis of the course stems from stubbornly low voter turnout. Additionally, the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center has reported that just 26% of Americans could name the aforementioned branches of government, and the Institute for Citizens and Scholars has estimated that only 1 in 3 Americans could pass the nation’s Citizenship Test. Further, between September 2020 and September 2021, less than a quarter of American adults volunteered for a civic organization – the smallest share of the population since 2002, when the Census Bureau and the national service agency AmeriCorps began keeping track.
So as not to view all this through a pandemic social-distancing lens, over two decades ago noted social scientist Robert Putnam made the simple observation that we once bowled in leagues, usually after work; but no longer. This seemingly small phenomenon symbolized a significant social change that became the basis for his acclaimed bestseller, Bowling Alone. The book’s core argument was that Americans were falling away from civic, social, and political engagement. All these years later, not much appears to have changed. Thus, the need for action.
A new book, “The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens” by retiring president of the Council on Foreign Relations Richard Haass, provides a call to that action. Mr. Haass contends that the U.S. has not placed enough emphasis on promoting Americans’ duties as citizens and wants us to learn more about civics and become better informed about public affairs; to know more about the structure of government and become better acquainted with, say, the Federalist Papers and the Constitution. Sounds like Indiana is on the right track. With this week marking the first-ever national Civic Learning Week, may it bring added attention to our duty to take a serious interest in local, state, and national issues, and to be part of an informed citizenry. One that then votes.
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