Distributed September 1996
Copyright ©1996 by Susan Graseck
It seems we are talking more about politics, and understanding less. With all the hype, it is important to remember that an election is about more than who's up and who's down. It is about citizens deciding the fate of their nation and their communities.
"Democracy succeeds in America," observed Alexis de Tocqueville, "not because of the perfection of the Constitution but through the democratic outlook of individual citizens." The tools of citizenship - critical thinking, shared deliberation and informed decisionmaking - are perhaps even more essential today than in Tocqueville's time.
People are feeling anxious about the state of public discourse in America, and with reason. Too much of what passes for public discourse is nothing more than sound bites, staged debates or radio call-in shows that polarize and distort discussion. We are talking at one another, but rarely do we talk with one another. Everywhere there is concern that if we don't do something now to reinvigorate our civil society, we risk losing it. We need to find ways to carry on conversation in our neighborhoods, schools, libraries, our places of worship - in all of the public spaces in which Americans still come together.
There are signs of hope. Across the country a variety of forums for public discussion are emerging. Some focus on public policy. Others are more concerned with issues of personal and collective identity. All are part of a process to return citizens to public discussion and reestablish public discourse as a foundation of our democratic society. The "civic" or "public" journalism movement encourages the media to base its coverage on the real needs of citizens called upon to make decisions in a democratic society. And in November, the National Council for the Social Studies will hold discussions on the educator's role in building civil society.
The Choices for the 21st Century Project is one of an increasing number of efforts to bring people together to deliberate about who we are and where we are headed. In the neutral setting of the local library, Choices invites community members to gather over four successive weeks to discuss who we believe we are as a society, to ask what we want as a nation, and to consider our country's role in the world of the 21st century.
This year, folks in more than 90 communities - from urban centers to rural districts - will participate because they, like millions across the country, sense that the recent momentous changes in the international landscape have profound implications. They recognize that, with the end of the Cold War, we have a unique opportunity to reassess our foreign interests and needs, reevaluate priorities at home, and chart a new course for U.S. policy. And they believe that these discussions - set in the library, our intellectual public commons - hold out the promise of civil discussion on issues that too often divide us.
Since our nation's beginnings, we have wrestled with the contradictions inherent in balancing the needs of the individual with those of the community, and have asked who should be included in that community. We have debated whether our nation has a responsibility to help other societies in the world. In the context of the changing international environment, we must again decide how we will conduct ourselves. What role should we play in international conflicts? What costs are we willing to incur to promote or protect our national values? What are those values? And how should we balance our foreign priorities with our domestic needs? These questions go to the heart of who we believe we are as a nation. Discussing these issues is the common work of citizenship - work that, when entered into sincerely and with a sense of humor, can be one of the most enriching experiences we can have together.
Such discussions are not easy. Our differences can seem great. But when they work, they are the glue that binds us. They put into practice what we believe about ourselves; that we are a nation in concept, not in creed, that it is our differences as much as our likenesses that is our bond - in short, e pluribus unum - out of many we will build one.
As we round the final bend of another election year, we must remember that pulling the lever on Election Day is not in itself the test of citizenship but only a manifestation of a much larger responsibility: the responsibility to engage in open discussion, to listen carefully to opposing views, to weigh tradeoffs, to articulate a reasoned judgment on the issues at hand, and finally to look for common ground on which to move forward. If we are going to preserve the democratic heritage on which this country was founded, together we must do the hard work to chart a common path to the 21st century.######
The Choices library discussion program, part of the National Endowment for the Humanities' National Conversation initiative, is currently offered in Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Utah. Choices curricula, designed to engage high school students in the consideration of international issues, are in use in more than 3,500 schools nationwide.