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Americans have forgotten the reason why we educate children in America. As a result our children, schools, communities, and the nation are suffering.
It's the season of commencement speeches and interviews with beaming young graduates. High schools will graduate 2.7 million students this year, and colleges and universities will confer 3.4 million degrees. We are inundated with messages declaring that the purpose of education is to get a great job, make lots of money, and become personally independent. "Fulfill your dreams," is the oft-echoed refrain. Why aren't we exhorting graduates to be responsible citizens?
We have forgotten that there is only one purpose for an education system in a republic: to educate citizens. Anything that distracts us from that singular objective is destructive to our children and the nation. What passes for civic education (if our children actually get any civic education -- many don't) is an overview of process. Textbooks describe federalism and the differences between local, state, and national governments. Students read chapters about the checks and balances of the separate branches of government. "Process" is not responsible citizenship, nor is it exciting teaching.
The United States of America is truly built on the foundation of "We the People." Without active and informed citizens, the republic will fail. Over and over again the founding generation reminded themselves, and us, that an educated citizenry is the fuel -- the guarantee -- of a strong, vital republic. Thomas Jefferson in particular was an advocate for an educated citizenry. But our twenty-first-century schools do everything but train our children to exercise their civic responsibilities. We demand that schools provide workers for business, keep our children off the streets, socialize them, and even instruct them in the fundamentals of procreation. We fail, however, to teach the responsibilities of citizenship because we have failed to teach our children American history.
Our history tells the stories of citizens engaged in the business of shaping communities, states, and the nation. These stories tell of the remarkable, creative, and innovative successes of citizens as they met the economic, social, scientific, and political challenges so similar to the ones we face. These stories describe the consequences when we fall short.
Educating a citizen is not indoctrination to a political party or ideology. It is not the memorization of names, dates, and battles regurgitated on a multiple-choice test. Educating a citizen requires that we teach our children how to ask good questions, study the evidence, and explore alternatives. Most importantly, engaged citizens must understand and employ the art of persuasive argument. Citizens must engage other citizens. In the United States we do not wait for a monarch, dictator, theologian, or the wealthy class to solve our problems for us. We go into the world every day and work to solve those problems for ourselves. It is a responsibility that cannot -- must not -- be taken lightly.
If we are not educating citizens, what can we do? How do we change? Tell your children that no matter what the pundits say, the most important lesson of their school experience is responsible citizenship. Take your children to libraries and history museums. Help them explore the stories of American history. Get them to talk to you about citizenship as you drive them to their next activity. Remind them that they are citizens of your family, of their school, of their clubs and sports teams, and of their community. Tell your local principals, school administrators, and school board that you expect good quality American history and civics education in your schools. Discuss the issue within civic and community organizations. Write to your representatives. Tell them to get out of the way, because much of the school legislation they sponsor -- local, state, and federal -- discourages the teaching of American history and civics. Be part of the solution. Be a citizen for the republic.