What does it mean to be an American? It's the kind of high school essay question that brings to mind those lofty notions of freedom and liberty. But that would be so 1961—and today's students are not all focused on what they can do for their country. To wit, in a recent study conducted by Stanford education professor William Damon, in which students were asked what American citizenship means to them, some of the responses include:
"We just had that the other day in history. I forget what it was."
"I mean, being American is not really special.... I don't find being an American citizen very important."
"I don't know, I figure it really shouldn't mean anything."
"I don't want to belong to any country. It just feels like you are obligated to this country. I don't like the whole thing of citizen.... I don't like that whole thing. It's like, citizen, no citizen; it doesn't make sense to me. It's like to be a good citizen.... I don't know, I don't want to be a citizen ... it's stupid to me."
Earlier this week, in a lunch hosted by the Hoover Institution, Damon discussed his latest book, Failing Liberty 101: How We Are Leaving Young Americans Unprepared for Citizenship in a Free Society. He explained how the lack of interest in civics in our schools is leading toward a dangerous apathy. Whereas 60 percent of students said they were interested in civic affairs in the early 1960s, over the last decade, the number declined to 30 percent. (There is also a link to voter participation, though 2008 was an exception.)
As it turns out, the problem is us—specifically educators today who lack that commitment to teaching about America, the emphasis being on so many other cultures as opposed to stressing what it means to be an American. (Damon is careful to say he has nothing against the celebration of other cultures but that there isn't much room left for anything else, including American exceptionalism.)
"Sure it's important to say we're part of the world community," said Damon. "But in literal fact, students are not learning to become citizens of the world." They become American citizens. Or at least we hope—the idea of assimilation, a melting pot, is also becoming a notion of the past. As for teachers who talk about the American Dream being dead, Damon says that is the worst thing they can say—"they are killing these children's hopes and aspirations, detaching them from country." He also pointed out that in Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, King says his dream "is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream."
Failing Liberty 101 is short and concise. It's a handy reminder of what we once knew and what later generations may be forgetting.