Citizenship and The Constitution
No one is born a citizen. Our Constitution allows so-called “birthright citizenship.” But no one is born understanding the Constitution. Real citizenship requires active commitment to the values of the community.
That’s why civic education is important. Some states have instituted mandatory civics test, requiring high school students to score 60% on the U.S. Citizenship test, the same score required for immigrants to qualify for U.S. citizenship.
In California, State Superintendent of Schools Tom Torlakson and Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court Tani Cantil-Sakauye are leading a new civic education initiative. The chief justice explains, “The strength of our democratic institutions relies on the public’s understanding of those institutions.” Civic Education Partnerships have been created in six counties, including Fresno.
Of course, knowledge about the Constitution is not sufficient. Citizenship is deeper than factual knowledge. It includes a set of values and active commitments. Can those values and commitments be created by education?
I talked about this with John Minkler, a retired educator who is one of the leaders in Fresno County’s Civic Education Partnership. Minkler’s passion for civics is evident from a bumper sticker on his car that reads, “E Pluribus Unum.” Minkler points out that we carry this motto in our pockets every day. Take a look at your coins. They proclaim, E Pluribus Unum – “out of many, one.”
This is the basic idea behind the social contract: we join together to form a community. Individuals reap benefits from belonging to the community. We also have obligations to participate in the life of the community.
Minkler worries, however, that the social contract has eroded. One problem is materialistic individualism. We are often more focused on self-interest than the common good. A related problem is an educational system that focuses on test results and obedience rather than engaged citizenship.
Many have become disillusioned with political life. Young people are especially cynical. Studies show that millennials are less politically aware and committed than older adults. They vote less and don’t trust the political system.
Critical scrutiny of our system is wise. Democratic government requires vigilant citizens. But cynical disengagement is self-defeating. If you believe you can’t change things, then you will not work to change them. And then – lo and behold – things don’t change!
Minkler explains that citizenship develops from involvement in the community, which teaches that individual commitment matters. Minkler has long been an advocate of service-learning. He says that service-learning helps disengaged kids develop the spark of citizenship, as they discover that their effort and commitment actually matters.
Teachers and schools already have a difficult task of developing college- and career-ready graduates. Creating good citizens is yet another difficult task. We can’t expect the schools to do this alone. That’s why the idea of a Civic Education Partnership is important. In Fresno County, the Civic Education Partnership includes educational leaders, business and community leaders, as well as members of the legal profession.
To support this effort, the Ethics Center at Fresno State is co-sponsoring a Constitution Day event at Fresno State on Sept. 17. In case you forgot, Sept. 17 is the anniversary of the signing of the Constitution. Around the country, that day is celebrated as Constitution and Citizenship Day.
The event at Fresno State will focus on the question of how civic education connects youths to our constitutional system. Speakers will include former Assemblyman Juan Arambula, Fresno City Council Member Esmeralda Soria, Lorenzo Rios, CEO of Clovis Veterans Memorial District, Justice Rosendo Peña, Jr. from the California Fifth District Court of Appeal, Deborah Nankivell, CEO of the Fresno Business Council, and Minkler.
Citizenship involves understanding the Constitution and the basic principles of democratic government. It also requires commitment and engagement. Communities are not abstract ideas created on paper documents. They are living entities in which diverse individuals work together within a framework of common values. No community is perfect. But communities are improved when citizens understand their rights and responsibilities, and when individuals actively participate in the shared life of “we, the people.”