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Unity and National Identity

A path to citizenship

Writing in The Atlantic, Eric Liu, a former Clinton speechwriter and creator of Citizen University, warns that with all the discussion that’s sure to come about immigration reform, we must be careful not to neglect discussing the destination: citizenship itself.  “What is this thing that needs to be earned?” he asks. “What, besides a bundle of rights, does the status entail and require? What do longstanding citizens take for granted and what is asked of brand-new Americans?”

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In search of a common cause

Over at Time, Joe Klein reports on the people he has met and spoken with on his recent third-annual U.S. road trip. Many of these people are military veterans who expressed to Klein their increasing concern that a gap between those who have served the country and those who haven’t is widening, and that as a result the country itself is becoming more bifurcated.

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Memorial Day with Muslims

Peter Skerry, a co-convener of the Program’s Dialogue on Islam in America, has an article today in the Worcester, Massachusetts, newspaper The Telegram in which he describes his experience attending this year’s annual convention of the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA).

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Peter Skerry and “The Muslim-American Muddle”

Drawing on his work with our “Dialogue on Islam in America,” Peter Skerry has written a thoughtful article on Muslim-American identity in the new edition of National Affairs. Paying special attention to the “enormous diversity” of the Muslim-American population (currently estimated to be about 2.75 million, or less than 1% of the U.S. population), Skerry traces the history of the main Islamic organizations in America and paints a broad picture of their immediate futures. Focusing largely on the competing claims of loyalty that many Muslims face–and the confusion that begets–Perry notes:

The fundamental problem is not disloyalty among Muslim Americans, but their reluctance to confront the implications of the Islamism that has been part of their milieu and that their leaders continue to invoke, however ritualistically or unreflectively. Thus, the primary goal should be to exert constructive pressure, in different ways and to different degrees, on Muslim Americans — leaders and ordinary citizens alike — to “deal with their baggage.” An exemplary step in this direction is the FBI’s policy shift away from contact and cooperation with CAIR. So was the Bush Justice Department’s prosecution of the Holy Land Foundation. Today, however, the Obama administration is pursuing a more accommodating policy toward Muslim-American organizations. This is regrettable, but in truth there is only so much the government can or should do on this front. The most appropriate and effective source of pressure will be non-governmental actors, especially universities, think tanks, and the media.

If any such substantive engagement with Muslims is to be undertaken, then non-Muslim Americans will need to be much better informed. We must overcome the populist paranoia, fueled by the evasiveness of our elites, that demeans a free people. And rather than obsess over the presumed influence of overseas ties on Muslims in America, we need to be cognizant of how American Muslims have adapted to some of the most dysfunctional aspects of our own politics.

The whole article is well worth reading and thinking about.

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New Civic Mission of Schools Report Released

Following up on their first Civic Mission of Schools report  in 2003, the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools has just released a new report, Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools.

Emphasizing the importance of a national understanding of citizenship, the authors write:

America as a new nation was not created out of devotion to a motherland, a royal family, or a national religion. Americans are instead defined by our fidelity to certain ideals, expressed in the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments. While citizenship is formally acquired through either birth or naturalization, all of us must learn to become Americans. Peoples from diverse cultural, religious, and racial backgrounds can fully join the American community by sharing its defining commitments. If Americans are not bound together by common values, we will become fragmented and turn on one another.

In addition to this civic attachment and national unity, though, the report emphasizes the tangible, everyday benefits of good civic education. Showing that students who take civics classes become better-adjusted and more successful adults, the authors argue that “although we want young people to be civically engaged in the communities where they live, we also want to be sure they will be prepared for engagement with the wider range of settings they will encounter as young adults, including workplaces. There is considerable overlap between the skills acquired as part of civic learning and the skills required in employment. Rather than viewing civic learning as an isolated part of the curriculum, educators and the public should consider this more inclusive picture.”

Following these preliminary discussions, the report then delves into “proven practices” of how to teach civics effectively in order to increase students’ knowledge, skills, and attachment.

The whole report is interesting and thoughtful, and well worth reading. It can be found here.

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Teaching 9/11

As the 10-year anniversary of the 2001 September 11 attacks nears, and as we begin to remember and commemorate that day, it becomes important to reflect on how we as a nation will pass down to future generations such remembrances. Seniors in high school this year were 7 or 8 years old at the time of the attacks. Though they have since grown up in a world radically transformed by that day, even these seniors were too young to remember the particular events well—and many of those in younger grades have no memory of the attacks at all. They must be taught. Just like December 7 still retains significance and poignancy for Americans born after 1941, September 11 will be remembered by more than those who were alive in 2001. Memorial traditions, to be traditions, must be handed down.

This is precisely why new research by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) on how 9/11 is taught in schools is so interesting, and important. Their report finds that the first textbooks and curricula that appeared following 9/11 were all very much alike in their presentations of the events: they “presented America as the victim of a uniquely devastating attack and presented rich personal stories of the victims and iconic images of rubble, firefighters, and the American flag.”

With time, though, that view has changed. Textbooks now include briefer, more dispassionate assessments of the events, and many non-textbook curricula invite students to consider deeper level questions relating to the relationship between liberty and safety, how we define  ‘terrorism,’ and what role 9/11 has had in shaping our world since then.

The report and the accompanying fact sheet are interesting in themselves, but are important because of the larger questions they raise: How do we teach and pass on the importance of events like 9/11 to tomorrow’s students and citizens?

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A republic–if you can keep it

In the past week, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and former Congressman Lee Hamilton (now Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University) all weighed in on the civics crisis.

Writing for The Daily Beast, Justice O’Connor and Secretary Duncan note that “ill-informed high school students soon become ill-informed citizens.” Emphasizing the importance of civic education, the pair write that “the founders, from George Washington to Thomas Jefferson, understood that informed citizens were a bulwark against tyranny and vital to a functioning democracy. When the founding fathers exited Independence Hall after drafting the Constitution, a woman asked Benjamin Franklin, ‘What have we got—a republic or a monarchy?’ ‘A republic,’ Franklin replied, ‘if you can keep it.’”

An emphasis on civics is essential for young Americans today:

When done well, civics education in fact equips students with the very skills they need to succeed in the 21st century—the ability to communicate effectively, to work collectively, to hone critical questions, and to appreciate diversity. As the education professor Tony Wagner has pointed out, there is a happy “convergence between the skills most needed in the global knowledge economy and those most needed to keep our democracy safe and vibrant.”

Check out the whole article here, and visit Justice O’Connor’s online civics lab over at iCivics.

Hamilton’s op-ed makes a similar argument: Civic skills (as opposed to simply knowledge of civics) are important for all areas of life:

Citizenship requires both knowledge about government and the ability to be involved in governance. It means knowing how to identify and inform yourself about issues, explore and evaluate possible solutions, and then act to resolve problems. It demands that you know how to interact respectfully with others. And it asks that you accept responsibility for meeting your community’s and the nation’s challenges…Only by spending time with people who think differently, learning how to listen to them and to seek common ground, do we truly learn what it takes to make a diverse republic work.

Read the whole thing.

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“Citizens by birth or choice, of a common country”

The Unity of Government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so; for it is a main Pillar in the Edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home; your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very Liberty which you so highly prize. But as it is easy to foresee, that from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed, to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth; as this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed, it is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national Union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual and immoveable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the Palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned, and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our Country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts.

For this you have every inducement of sympathy and interest. Citizens by birth or choice, of a common country, that country has a right to concentrate your affections. The name of AMERICAN, which belongs to you, in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of Patriotism, more than any appellation derived from local discriminations. With slight shades of difference, you have the same Religion, Manners, Habits, and political Principles. You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together. The independence and liberty you possess are the work of joint councils, and joint efforts; of common dangers, sufferings and successes.

Farewell Address, George Washington, 1796

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