A Call for Better Citizenship Education
Often on college visits I hear talks from faculty and administration who want their students to become “good citizens of the world.” Through their various academic departments these schools take global citizenship education site seriously. No doubt colleges should think globally. They welcome students from all over the world, and they also send them abroad.
But recent events make me wonder—should citizenship education offer more about what it means to be an American citizen?
Imagine being an American citizen in 1787. Your nation won a military victory over an empire. The victorious army was a band of state militias. Strong leaders held them together. But your new nation would not have a formal standing army for another two years. Your country has ratified a constitution. The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, would be ratified in 1791. It would be amended only 17 more times over the next 200 years.
The US Constitution would also become the model for Japan’s constitution 160 years later.
But the Japanese, and the Americans who advised them, took our thoughts further.
This is Article 13 from the Japanese Constitution:
All of the people shall be respected as individuals. Their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness shall, to the extent that it does not interfere with the public welfare, be the supreme consideration in legislation and in other governmental affairs.
This is Article 14:
All of the people are equal under the law and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic or social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin.
Peers and peerage shall not be recognized.
No privilege shall accompany any award of honor, decoration or any distinction, nor shall any such award be valid beyond the lifetime of the individual who now holds or hereafter may receive it.
This is Article 15:
The people have the inalienable right to choose their public officials and to dismiss them.
All public officials are servants of the whole community and not of any group thereof. Universal adult suffrage is guaranteed with regard to the election of public officials.
In all elections, secrecy of the ballot shall not be violated. A voter shall not be answerable, publicly or privately, for the choice he has made.
This is Article 16:
Every person shall have the right of peaceful petition for the redress of damage, for the removal of public officials, for the enactment, repeal or amendment of laws, ordinances or regulations and for other matters; nor shall any person be in any way discriminated against for sponsoring such a petition.
This is Article 19:
Freedom of thought and conscience shall not be violated.
This is Article 20:
Freedom of religion is guaranteed to all. No religious organization shall receive any privileges from the State, nor exercise any political authority.
No person shall be compelled to take part in any religious act, celebration, rite or practice.
The State and its organs shall refrain from religious education or any other religious activity.
This is Article 21:
Freedom of assembly and association as well as speech, press and all other forms of expression are guaranteed.
No censorship shall be maintained, nor shall the secrecy of any means of communication be violated.
Other articles of the Japanese Constitution, developed under the advice of Americans:
- Guarantee academic freedom (Article 23)
- Mandate equal rights of the husband and wife in marriage (Article 24)
- Guarantee workers the right to collective bargaining (Article 28)
Clearly the Japanese, motivated by the desire to rebuild their country after World War II, received a good citizenship education. They have never had the need to amend their constitution.
Our Founding Fathers could neither be soothsayers nor time travelers.
Of course America is different from Japan. It is a larger country with a larger economy, more natural resources and fifty states. But recent events show that we have a lot to learn through citizenship education.
There are reasons that we are the country that we are, and those reasons evolved over time. The Founding Fathers could have never predicted:
- The roles of business and government in westward expansion
- Advancements in communications and transportation within our country
- Greater abuse of immigrant labor brought in from other countries to help build our economy
- Demands for civil rights and voting rights from unrepresented peoples, including women.
- Households with working husbands and wives
- Questioning of the nation’s military interests by the media and the public
- Secession of territories that became independent governments (the Philippines)
- Greater accessibility to a high school, then a college education
- The explosion of news outlets that we call “the media”
If the Japanese were able to learn from our example, why couldn’t our president?
President Trump’s recent speech bothered me more than any remarks that he has made since he took office. This passage gave me chills, but also reminds me why there is a need for better citizenship education:
I am immobilizing all federal resources, civilian and military to stop the rioting and looting, to end the destruction and arson, and to protect the rights of law-abiding Americans, including your Second Amendment rights.
The president called for governors to use active duty military to complement their state and local police forces. At the same time, the president is commander in chief of the military. His authority would supersede that of any state or local official. Yet he also told the governors it was their responsibility, not his, to tamp down harshly on the continued unrest. This president’s abuse of the police power of our Capital and the National Guard to do a photo op is more disgraceful. His recent attempts to suppress voting by mail could deny voting rights to citizens who have earned them. Our constitution does not assure access to the polls in a federal election. But states have exercised their rights, granted under the Tenth Amendment, to make it easier for people to vote by mail. This president wants to marginalize the state boards of elections and the voters who might vote against him.
Good citizenship education covers the reasons for separation of powers and church and state. It would help young Americans to put our Constitution and other public policies and place them in the context of their times.
Seventy-three years ago the Japanese learned from our example. They later prospered. Our 73 year old president—his birthday is in two weeks—has learned nothing. But America can still prosper, be greater, long after he is gone. Good citizenship education can help make that happen.