WASHINGTON, July 29, 2010 — Nearly 100 social studies teachers from around the nation heard a rousing call for civic education and citizen engagement issued by Lee H. Hamilton, director of the Center on Congress.
"You and I are concerned because if more and more Americans are less and less interested in civic responsibility, then the entire American democratic enterprise is at risk, and the country will not work," Hamilton said.
He gave the keynote for the third annual Professional Development Leadership Seminar, which drew master civics teachers to Washington, D.C., July 18-20 for intensive training in using the curricular materials produced by the Alliance for Representative Democracy.
The Alliance is an educational initiative of the Center on Congress, the Center for Civic Education, and the National Conference of State Legislatures. The seminar equipped the master teachers to conduct workshops in their states explaining to other teachers how to use Alliance materials in the classroom.
The goal of the Alliance is to enhance the public's understanding of and appreciation for the institutions of representative democracy and to promote competent and responsible citizen participation.
That's a challenging job, Hamilton told the teachers. "There is a sense, particularly among many younger folks, that being an American citizen is no big deal; no obligation attaches to it, it's an endeavor not particularly worthy of their time and talent," Hamilton said. "We are concerned because we know that an apathetic, passive, and cynical view about our democracy will invite leaders who abuse power. There is an old observation: a society of sheep must in time beget a government of wolves.
"American democracy makes a wager on each citizen. The deal is simple: with freedom comes obligation, with liberty comes duty. If you and I do not fulfill our side of that wager, democracy is doomed."
One thing our nation needs, Hamilton said, is a more intense focus on civic education. "We must learn and we must teach our young people the words we live by in the Constitution, in the Declaration of Independence, and in the other grand documents of American history. And we must learn and teach about the institutions that bring life and permanence to those documents."
More is expected of citizens in a democracy than merely voting, Hamilton said. "I know people who vote, walk out of the booth, and say and believe that their civic duty has been fully discharged, that voting is all they need to do. Voting is important but not enough. Do you know who does not disengage when the voting is done? Interest groups. They begin their work the day after an election — the day after the bill is enacted into law. They know that's when the work really begins, and so should the rest of us."
Hamilton, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1965 to 1999, said his experience in public life has led him to conclude that "most Americans want to be better people, living in better communities, in a better state, and in a better nation." But, he said, "often, they want to become involved but don't know where to go, whom to talk to, what to do." He called on educators to "show them how to engage, how to participate, how to get off the sidelines and into the action."
Though national and international issues draw most of the media's attention, Hamilton said he advises citizens to engage first on concerns in their communities. "I like the attitude of the builder who said: 'I cannot solve the world's problems, but I can help build this house.' You and I may not have the opportunity to engage to resolve the really big problem: Fixing health care. Saving social security. Changing the tax code. Defending our nation against its enemies. But all of us can engage effectively through small, incremental changes."
Hamilton called civic engagement "the best antidote to cynicism. When we engage, we feel empowered, we become more optimistic, we have more trust in our fellow citizens, and we get good things done. Perhaps most important, we gain an appreciation for the hard work of democracy, how to understand different points of view and forge a consensus behind a course of action towards a solution."
In closing, Hamilton expressed his gratitude to the master teachers. "You accept the responsibility of an American citizen, and go beyond that. We hear a lot these days about leadership. Leadership, of course, matters. But the key issue in the country today is not leadership, it is citizenship. We need to ask more of ourselves — and our fellow citizens."
For a full text of Hamilton's speech, go to Master Teachers and Our Nation's Future.
The Alliance for Representative Democracy is funded by the U.S. Department of Education under the Education for Democracy Act approved by Congress.
The Center on Congress is a non-partisan, educational institution established in 1999 to help improve the public's understanding of Congress and to encourage civic engagement.
The Center offers an extensive array of programs, projects and resources that foster an informed electorate which understands our system of government and participates in civic life. These include: print publications; Web-based, interactive modules and other online learning tools in English and Spanish; commentaries for newspapers and radio stations; video and television in the classroom resources; survey research; teacher awards; and seminars, conferences, and a lecture series.