Call me old-fashioned, but I get ornery when people don’t know the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner” – or if they can’t name the three branches of government. Growing up, my mother made sure my sister and I knew our rights and responsibilities as American citizens. She often quoted text from the U.S. Constitution much like she did Scripture from the Bible. I remember carrying around a pocket dictionary and a pocket Constitution as a teenager.
Later in life, when I lived in South Philly, I decided I wanted to have a greater say in development proposals in my neighborhood, so I ran to be on the board of directors for my neighborhood civic association. Once elected, I had a direct line to my city councilman, who had the power to ax or advance any project. Board members also helped organize block clean-ups, food drives and flea markets, and planted neighborhood gardens. These efforts benefited the community at large, empowered our residents to have a stronger voice and encouraged those involved to be civic-minded. This mindfulness makes people more proactive and invested in their communities, which results in higher voter turnout, lower crime, cleaner neighborhoods and residents who are happier and healthier.
Today, too many Pennsylvanians – and, indeed, too many Americans – appear to know too little about the history, ideals and practices of our own political system. Even in the Cradle of Liberty, civic education seems to have taken a back seat.
Just last week, during a Philadelphia mayoral forum, candidates were asked a question about how they would curb the state of lawlessness on city streets. While candidates offered up a variety of solutions, my belief is the root of the problem stems from a fundamental disrespect for those very laws. In his address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield in 1836, Abraham Lincoln said that to solve many of these problems, Americans should have a “reverence for the laws” of the land and that it should become the “political religion” of the nation.
A good start to inculcating civic knowledge and responsibility in young people is to make it mandatory for public middle and high schools to teach courses on American citizenship and democracy. Private schools and home-schooling parents should also incorporate such a regimen into their curricula. By teaching civics to the next generation, young people will have a better chance of entering adulthood with a greater understanding of how democracy works. And with that understanding, they will have the power to take control of their futures.
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