The Obama administration states it will continue to keep its heel on the throat of BP to hold it accountable. Rand Paul responds that this is un-American. And so goes the process that we call politics. But since that exchange several weeks ago, I’ve been pondering anew what it means to be “American”. What do I see as good and right in our system? What makes me proudest to be an American?
Clearly this must be something more than a geographic description based on artificial boundaries, lines figuratively drawn in the earth separating us from our neighbors Canada and Mexico. For me it ultimately comes down to the system of government set in place over the latter part of the 1700s and refined since. It is the creation of three independent and equal branches of government. It is a rich set of rights defined to assure we enjoy such great freedoms. Even more foundationally, it is the underlying principle of our government that:
“Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.” — Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence
On July 5th our local NPR station played a “Human Kind” special that detailed the critical importance a number of the founding fathers, especially Thomas Jefferson, placed on a strong educational system that would assure the informed citizenry needed to maintain a democratic form of government. The report also interviewed many leaders today that express alarm regarding the severe reduction or elimination of civics courses in our school systems in lieu of math and science education. In addition, the young nation stressed the importance of free speech and free press. Again, many civic leaders today express alarm at the growing trend towards restricted speech and a press controlled by a few, large business entities.
Am I an American because I enjoy the fruits of the generations that came before me to establish and protect the form of government in place today? Or does being an American require an awareness of, and participation in, that democracy as an informed citizen, both of the form of government and also of the current issues being addressed by that government? I suspect the latter. And if the latter, what does it mean that only 27% of 12th graders today have a proficient understanding of our governmental system? What does it say that ALL naturalized citizens must pass a test demonstrating such proficiency before being granted their citizen papers? Perhaps it has always been that those newest to our country are the ones that most prize that which makes us most uniquely American.
The Nations Report Card: Civics 2006, National Center for Educational Statistics, accessed July 14, 2010.
Seeking an Involved and Informed Citizenry, USA Today, September, 2005, by Maris Vinovskis, accessed July 14, 2010