To Americanize is to be comfortable telling everyone that what separates this nation from others is that it has a moral identity. Others have history and tradition. We do too, but more than anything, our nation is dedicated to a proposition. That distinction cannot be emphasized enough. When Jefferson proclaimed the truth of human equality “self-evident,” he was not recording a timeless fact; he was asserting one into being. His saying so, as he declared America, helped make it so.
It falls on us to keep it so. Only continuous renewal of a commitment to the creed keeps the creed alive. Naming it matters: rediscovering the words, saying them again, assaying their meaning. In classrooms, boardrooms, kitchens, and churches, in corner stores and today’s settlement houses, on TV and on Twitter, it’s time to shake off the sleep of cynicism and to awaken in earnest as Americans. It is time to appreciate the content of our creed as if we were all newcomers: with wonder and awe at the world-changingness of it all.
To reanimate the creed we need to focus in part on revitalizing civic education in our schools. The Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools is one advocacy group working to do this. Even though public education in America is a matter largely left to the states, there can and should be a federal requirement that the basic texts and ideas of our nation’s civic creed be taught, in an upward spiral of sophistication, every year from kindergarten to twelfth grade. After all, as Justice Sandra Day O’Connor notes, this was the very point of creating free and compulsory public education: to make citizens.
The responsibility belongs not only to schoolteachers or education policy-makers. Leaders in every community should take it upon themselves to start contests and public conversations about the American creed: what’s in it, what challenges it, how we honor it, how we have fallen short. The answers will be staggeringly varied—as they are on the DefineAmerican.com website started by the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist (and undocumented immigrant) Jose Antonio Vargas—but they will have a unifying thread of reckoning.
Character Our standard of citizenship in America is centered, constitutionally and rhetorically, on rights. But with rights come duties and with liberty, responsibility; else freedom decays into mere free-for-all. So a second dimension of a new Americanization is the cultivation of citizenship as a matter of character. This is citizenship in the sense of good or great citizenship: living in a pro-social way; showing up for one another; making an adaptive asset of our diversity. Civic character is therefore more than industry, perseverance, and other personal virtues. It is character in the collective: team-spiritedness, mutuality, reciprocity, responsibility, empathy, service, cooperation. It is acting as if you believed that society becomes how you behave—because it does. Character is the thread that ties creed and deed together. What acts instantiate our stated values? With what understanding of our system of self-government? Making what kind of contribution?
The cultivation of strong citizens does not happen automatically, any more than the cultivation of healthy plants does. Democracy is a garden in which the organisms are interdependent. Developing civic character is the work of gardening—of tending the plot. In a multiethnic market democracy like ours, we cannot rely on a myth of rugged individualism to hold us together. We have to seed and feed trust. We reap what we sow. Educators need to teach not just civic facts and history but also the elements of civic character: what it means to be in union with others. That requires doing real things together and reflecting on the shared experience. In schools, it means more service learning that’s tied to an understanding of American institutions. Take students to serve in a church food bank, for instance, but also discuss the civic role of faith-based groups. What can citizens make happen with and without government, with and without each other?
In government policy, cultivating civic character means adding more resources for AmeriCorps and other national service programs—but also grounding them more explicitly in elements of American citizenship. In parenting and child rearing, it means teaching and rewarding even the smallest acts of courtesy and cooperation because they compound. In philanthropy and community life, it means creating more opportunities for adults to learn how to do democracy.
During the Great Depression, grassroots citizenship schools like the Highlander Folk School in Appalachia emerged for just this purpose. Highlander is where Rosa Parks was trained to organize. It was where she learned that civic character is expressed in the choices we make. She was prepared by her teachers to make the right choice as a citizen when the time came. What institutions prepare us now?
Culture As it happens, the Highlander School is also where an old black spiritual was adapted and then popularized into a movement anthem called “We Shall Overcome.” American democracy makes us a promise that only we can keep. This faith requires a rich, suffusing culture of unity: anthems, rituals, colors, civic scripture set and reset in new creative contexts.
The third aspect of Americanization, then, is introducing Americans to the patterns of our civic culture—how we have governed ourselves, by law or custom, and lived in community over 200 years. One such pattern is promise, failure, and redemption. This is the foundational story of slavery and civil rights. Another is the generation of hybrid innovations from our miscegenated gene and meme pool. This is the story of American music, of Silicon Valley’s ingenuity.
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