For me, this article by Jennifer Breheny Wallace really hits home. In 1960 we moved, for the first time, from Colorado to California. I was eleven. There would be a couple more riding between Denver and LA on the California Zephyr. Although we had lived in Colorado Springs and like my big sister before me, I spent many a day and night on my grandmother’s farm in Fort Morgan. I learned at an early age what farm life was all about. This would all change in California.
My father was a retired Gunnery Sergeant. A Bronze Star and Purple Heart recipient with the 1st Marine Division at Guadalcanal. By today’s standards he clearly suffered from PTSD. Moving from one poor neighborhood to the next, holding a job was a real problem. We never lived anywhere longer than two years. Alcoholism, random acts of violence, chain smoking and malaria slowly ate him up. Let’s just say paying the rent became a problem. Although deeply wounded, at his core he was a decent man. As evidenced in moments of sobriety, he certainly was well aware of his short-comings. Yet he never wavered from what he considered his continuing civic responsibility.
That’s not me but I did live here!!
My prelude to the now infamous Kennedy/Nixon election of 1960 was my father walking me to the polling place in our tenement like apartment complex in Venice. It was in a garage off of an alley. I stood next to him, in the booth, and watched him vote. He explained to me why I was there, what he was doing and why it was important. At the time, my parents and I shared a one bedroom apartment in a mostly ethnic neighborhood. I was the anomaly, a fifth grade skinny white kid. When he walked me back to our apartment, he told me he just voted for the next President of the United States, Richard M. Nixon. Irrespective of his inner demons, his traditional rural roots were intact. He instilled in me a responsibility of being a citizen. With a view from a TV tray, the 6:00 p.m. dinner hour revolved around watching Walter Cronkite. Besides Red Skelton and Lucy, the National politics, and whatever NASA was doing, dominated our attention. My parents formal educations ended after receiving their high school diplomas but somewhere along the line, they both understood the importance of voting and their greater civic responsibility of staying informed and staying engaged.
Too many people today voting doesn’t mean much. Civic responsibility gets replaced by cynicism or superficial gratuitous patriotism. An attitude of “What’s in for me?” or the notion of nothing will change anyway seems common. I would guess that many of these individuals did not get a civic education either at home or in school. Rout memorization of dates, places and names to satisfy State testing requirements does little too instill a sense of value in governance. What students mostly get from family, friends and some teachers, is a world of teaching to the test and commentary about personal political beliefs. What does this have to do with civic responsibility? It just isn’t important anymore especially in a world where everyone is already an unproven expert in everything. This has to change if we are to regain any sense of civility and our common responsibility to each other. It has to start at a young age. Education has to pertain to more than just the acquisition of vocational skills or meeting the short-term political needs of politicians and education administrators.
Jennifer Breheny Wallace’s article shows that there are those out there that understand the importance of civics. They have an outline that needs to gain universal acceptance. This revisitation, this reprioritization of a true education in civics just may provide the common thread of binding the nation together. Our challenge has always been to balance the rights and needs of the individual with the needs of the many. Our unfettered right to be active civic participants has always been the core foundation of American exceptionalism. Our civic knowledge has to have depth, based in a concerted effort to understand our unique system of a representative democracy, and our place in this “Republic.” It is our collectively responsibility to do so.