In 2010, AEI launched a major new initiative, the Program on American Citizenship, dedicated to strengthening the foundations of American freedom and self-government by renewing our understanding of American citizenship. The ultimate goal of the Program is to deepen Americans’ appreciation for and attachment to those principles that are necessary to keep the United States free, strong, and democratic.
America’s public schools were founded in order to create good citizens who could sustain a new and fragile republic. As Thomas Jefferson famously opined, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” Thus, for nearly two centuries, schools have made civic education a priority in order to ensure the continued stability of our democratic republic and to provide an ever-more-diverse citizenry with a solid appreciation of the rights, opportunities and responsibilities that come with American citizenship.
Today, however, too many of our schools are failing in that mission. To understand the sources of this decline, the Program commissioned a groundbreaking, new survey of the teachers most directly charged with educating and shaping America’s new citizens–high school teachers of history and social studies.
Our survey work provided a clear policy directive: If we are to get better citizens, we need better civic education, which gives a central role to America’s history, political institutions, and ideals and is based on effective classroom practice.
American democracy is built on its institutions. In his classic study, Democracy in America, Alexis De Tocqueville argues that institutions are crucial to creating and maintaining a culture of citizenship. Institutions, he writes, “remind every citizen, and in a thousand ways, that he lives in society”–removing individuals from their isolation, bringing them into a world of common activity, and teaching them the habits of heart and mind necessary for self-governing citizens.
Today, however, there is a widespread distrust of our public institutions. Americans are less satisfied with the country’s direction than at any time during the last 30 years. This disaffection has not had insignificant consequences for citizenship, as reflected by the ongoing decline in civic and political engagement over the past few decades.
With this focus area, we seek to understand the reasons behind Americans’ disillusionment with their institutions, and, more importantly, to find ways to restore this broken trust.
Americans are very patriotic. However, strong as Americans’ pride in their country is, most have a fairly minimal understanding of what patriotic citizenship demands. According to research by AEI, two-thirds of Americans said it was enough to love one’s country to be a good citizen. In practice, citizenship is too often treated merely as a transactional relationship affording basic entitlements and entailing limited obligations.
With this focus area, we aim to restore a sense of citizenship as a fundamental obligation on all Americans. This citizenship asks that Americans understand the history of their nation and its system of government, engage in public discourse and deliberate on the public good, participate effectively in democratic processes, and work to sustain and enhance our communities and nation.
In short, citizenship must involve a balance of rights and responsibilities. If citizenship is invoked in the defense of rights, the corresponding duties of citizenship cannot be ignored.