Several surveys have been conducted of U.S.-born citizens using questions from the test immigrants must pass to become naturalized U.S. citizens, and the findings reveal widespread ignorance of American history and government.
This ignorance is startling and disheartening, because it is difficult to understand how one can be a responsible citizen, on the one hand, and yet be ignorant of government processes, affairs, and events, on the other hand.
Many of us also confuse liberty with license. We say that liberty is the right, totally unrestricted, to do as one wishes when, in fact, that is license. By contrast, to slightly alter a phrase from Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben, with great liberty comes great responsibility — including the responsibility to be informed and to be engaged.
The Civics Education Initiative is an effort to require that those who graduate from high school demonstrate at least a minimal amount of civic knowledge. I am extraordinarily grateful to those who, starting in my earliest years, saw to it that such knowledge was a component of my own education.
In naming names, I’ll leave out more than a few who deserve mention — Karl Swan, Lewis Atkinson, Larry Silcox, Jim Clayton, Paul Cassell, and Michael McConnell, among many others.
I’ve quoted Spanish philosopher George Santayana in this space before, who said that those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it. Indeed, we cannot have a full understanding of where we are and of where we are going without knowing where we’ve been.
Too many of us take the sacrifices of those who gave so much so that we could enjoy both the freedom and the relative prosperity we enjoy for granted. Yet we cannot possibly preserve what they gave us if we don’t know who they are, what they did, or what we have as a result.
Too many people who complain about government inefficiency, overreaching, and other problems are content to let their complaints be the end of the matter. They cannot be bothered to contact government officials, to write letters to the editor, to participate in other grassroots change efforts — or even simply to vote.
Many people who would flee poverty, corruption, and disease in other parts of the world are willing to risk their lives to come here in search of a better life and more opportunities, yet many of us who were born here often are too afflicted with apathy and comparative “affluenza” to realize what we really have.
Whatever problems confront us, our leaders, and our government, the solution requires more than simply complaining about “them” and what “they” do. In a representative, participatory democracy, there is no “they” and “them”; there is only us. Any change we seek must begin with us.
I support such efforts as the Civics Education Initiative. Here’s hoping that all of us — the young, to be sure, but people of all ages — take the time to become more civically informed and engaged. If we do not, whatever problems remain are our own responsibility.
Ken K. Gourdin, Tooele, is a certified paralegal, and is a huge fan of American history, government, and legal processes.