In mid-March, after reading Richard Haass’s book “The Bill of Obligations,” in which he argues that American citizenship should include some democracy-affirming civic habits, I asked readers for their views on the obligations of good citizenship.
Scores of readers e-mailed to express their thoughts about what our country needs from us and thus what the concept of laudable American citizenship should encompass.
One persistent theme was that good citizens must educate themselves on the matters of the day, the better to participate meaningfully in public discourse.
Lisa Micali, 73, a retired ESL teacher from Boston, noted the inscription on the Boston Public Library in Copley Square: “The Commonwealth requires the education of the people as the safeguard of order and liberty.”
“Having educated citizens is paramount and the way to do that is to make sure to get news from multiple sources, evaluate things, and think for one’s self before forming an educated opinion,” she wrote.
Sixteen-year-old Ameliya Khadzhem, a junior at Scituate High School, recounted that when she became a citizen, the judge presiding over the swearing-in ceremony at Faneuil Hall told the new Americans that “freedom is a muscle” and that “one must exercise it to access its full potential.” For her, that means being informed and speaking out about what she sees as an overly militaristic US foreign policy.
“I know I’m a bit young but Gen Z has a voice,” she concluded.
Yes, being up to date and knowledgeable about current issues takes effort, but that effort should be considered a part of good citizenship, wrote Ginni Spencer, 76, of Bedford, who in her retirement helped start a digital newspaper to cover her community.
“Democracy requires the kind of daily organization that consistently puts civic engagement on the to-do list,” she wrote.
“Reading a good newspaper is a civic duty,” came a declaration that warmed my heart, this from Christopher J. Doucot, 55, cofounder of the Hartford Catholic Worker (a lay community in that city) and an adjunct professor of sociology at Central Connecticut State University and the University of Hartford. He lamented the fact that “the critical thinking skills of Americans have withered so much that millions of our countrymen and women believe the QAnon nonsense.” Now for some bad news. Based on Doucot’s surveys from the beginning of the semester, “Of my hundred or so university students each semester, only one will read a newspaper at some point in a given month.”
Their primary source of news? Snapchat. Yikes! Flunk them all! (Sorry, kidding.)
But “by the end of the semester they have been assigned stories from the Globe and long-form pieces from The Atlantic, the New York Times Magazine, and ProPublica,” the result of which is that “there is some (begrudging?) acknowledgement that perhaps social media is not an effective or responsible way of consuming the news.”
Instructors everywhere, take note!
One idea suggested again and again was the requirement or expectation of a year of national service as a way of giving something back to the country that has given so much to so many of us.
“Young people could use some practical and broadening life experience before entering college or the workforce,” e-mailed David McGuire, 71, a semi-retired health-care administrator from Newton. “On the other end of life, I’m surprised that we don’t have better organized ways for seniors to volunteer and contribute after they leave the workforce.”
“One year of compulsory service to the country either after graduating high school (gap year) or after college,” recommended Bob Kostka, 74, of Kingston, who spent four decades as a high school social studies teacher and is now an adjunct at Bridgewater State University. “The compulsory service need not be military; working in memory-care facilities, day-care centers, as teachers’ aides, in recreation departments, etc., would satisfy the requirement.”
A year of such service would enhance young people’s sense of active and enduring citizenship, predicted Will Wright, 78, of Bedford, who trained as a wildlife biologist, had a career as a business consultant, and is now active with Third Act, a movement of citizens over 60 dedicated to safeguarding democracy and building a sustainable future.
Many cited the need for better civics education.
“I never had a civics class in high school,” wrote Louise Sandberg, 75, a retired archivist who grew up in Tulsa, Okla., but now lives in Massachusetts. “I had to learn about the US government independently. Many people do not really know how our state and federal government work.” One way she herself learned: by working at polling locations.
Although the subject itself actually is widely taught in American schools, according to US News & World Report, in many districts, civics education is limited to one semester-long class in high school. Meanwhile, a 2022 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that only 47 percent of American adults could identify the three branches (executive, legislative, and judicial) of US government. Dismaying as that seems, the percentage was up from 26 percent in 2016.
“Civics wasn’t my favorite class in the 1960s, but I learned the basics on how our government functions (or is supposed to), something that some members of Congress — and a former president — don’t seem to grasp,” wrote Nancy Robertson, 74, of Scituate, a retired librarian who now volunteers at the local animal shelter.
As a reporter interacting with the public, one realizes that a significant proportion of the population doesn’t have a functional understanding of the operations of our governmental institutions. Or, for that matter, a realistic ground-level grasp of its basic electoral operations. Those lacunae allow conspiracy theories to take root.
Citizens should get involved locally or at least attend occasional municipal meetings in an area of their interest, wrote Jared Pendak, 40, of Bradford, Vt., a supported-employment coordinator for an area nonprofit organization.
“I get it — it’s hard to contribute to meetings on weeknights when you’re exhausted and trying to make dinner for a family,” he wrote. “Yet if each of us budgeted even a fraction of the time to municipal participation that we instead spend complaining about national politics, our communities would exponentially improve.”
A citizen’s minimal obligation should be to vote, many said. Some suggested making Election Day a holiday, which strikes me as a good idea, while others wanted to see a fine for non-voters.
“I’ve voted in every national, state, and local election since 1968 when I was aboard a US Navy ship,” reported John E. Gotimer, 75, a retired engineer from Lynn.
Susan Marden, 64, of Sutton, believes Americans have become too individualistic, to the detriment of our social compact.
“We gravitate to the self over any sense of the collective,” she said. “It seems we no longer can see the forest for the trees.” Almost two decades of community volunteer work — toy drives, community suppers, field trips, and fundraising — have helped her “to see beyond myself,” she wrote, drawing her closer to neighbors and engendering trust, which, she noted, “is required for compromise.” Her own experience leads her to think that the country needs some sort of civic-duty expectations as long as they are broad and flexible enough to accommodate the populace.
“At the very least, citizenship should require ballot box participation,” she concluded.
Nancy Keating, 56, a physician and professor of health-care policy from Newton, wrote that she agrees with Haass that “good citizenship entails some effort and obligation.” Her particular worry is that too many people get their news from social media sources that amplify their political predispositions.
But she also saw both a primary process problem and a pragmatic remedy. “Center-leaning Republicans and Democrats are reluctant to compromise because of fear of primary competitions,” she said. “One solution could be to make all primaries open primaries in hopes of lessening power of the far right or far left primary voters.”
Then there was a potpourri of thoughts about everyday interactions in America.
“First, we have to be civil to each other,” wrote Rosalie Kaufman, 85, a retired physical therapist from Swampscott. “Everyone wishes to be heard, seen, accepted, and respected.”
“Remaining open to compromise jumps to the head of the list for me, because it suggests so much about a person’s ability to listen and, in the ideal, validate despite remaining oppositional,” wrote Eric Robinson, 63, a writer and activist from Plymouth. “But if compromise is indeed an art, we’re in big trouble here in America, because we are artless right now in our day-to-day political discourses.”
“Call out bigotry. Work hard. Help where you can. Value people more than products,” wrote Christopher T. Vrountas, 59, a lawyer from Manchester, N.H., who paraphrased a piquant observation by dramatist and critic George Bernard Shaw: Liberty means responsibility — that is why so many people dread it.
Thanks to everyone who took the time to send an e-mail. I’m sorry I couldn’t include excerpts from them all. For those who missed my previous column on this matter, here’s Haass’s list of the obligations of citizenship:
One, to be reasonably well-informed; two, to be involved, at least at the level of voting; three, to remain open to compromise; four, to stay civil in disagreements; five, to reject violence; six, to value the unwritten norms of our democracy; seven, to promote the country’s common good; eight, to respect government service; nine, to support the teaching of civics; and 10, to put the country before party and person.
At a time when our politics are sharply polarized, a period when some put the perpetuation of their party’s power over the preservation of our democracy, his list is grist for productive family, classroom, or community discussions. I hope the suggestions readers made in this column are as well.