Commentary

'Citizens Handbook' Attracts Another Look

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The essay below is excerpted from The American Citizens Handbook, an out-of-print National Education Association publication that Secretary of Education William J. Bennett recently praised for its "remarkable balance and clarity" in discussing citizenship and moral values. Mr. Bennett suggested that the N.E.A. produce a new edition of the book, and said his department "would be happy to lend a hand."

The handbook--an anthology of writings with civic, patriotic, and inspirational themes--was first published in 1941. Two editions were produced that year, and later versions followed in 1946, 1951, 1960, and 1968. The book's last edition was some 600 pages long. Among the contents of the 1968 edition:

  • Essays on citizenship and good habits, such as "Citizenship in an Age of Change," “A Message to Garcia," "Our Schools Have Kept Us Free" (by Henry Steele Commager), and "Franklin's Plan of Selfimprovement."
  • The Magna Carta, the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, the United Nations Charter, and the UNESCO Constitution.
  • Speeches such as President Washington's farewell address, Horace Mann's "Go Forth and Teach," the Gettysburg Address, and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream."
  • Short biographies of prominent Americans of the past and facts about the 50 states.
  • Selections from the writings of Henry Ward Beecher, Cicero, John Dewey, Emily Dickinson, Thomas Edison, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Langston Hughes, Shakespeare, Thomas Jefferson, Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Paine, Franklin D. Roosevelt, H. G. Wells, and others.
  • "Sacred Writings," including the Ten Commandments, the Lord's Prayer, and a sampling of Buddhist, Confucian, Hindu, Moslem, and Baha'i thought.
  • "What Everyone Should Know About Law," which summarizes basic points of criminal and civil law.
  • The lyrics to "Songs of America," including the National Anthem, “America the Beautiful," "Dixie," "My Old Kentucky Home," and the Concord Hymn.
The following selection from the 1968 edition is from the opening essay, "Your Citizenship in the Making," by the book's editor, Joy Elmer Morgan.

It is a high privilege to be a citizen of the United States. There are those in less fortunate circumstances who would gladly give all they possess for the mere chance to come here to live. Although serious problems have to be solved, ours is known as a land of opportunity, equality, democracy, and progress. The development of our uniquely American civilization is due to at least four factors: adequate natural resources; the variety of ethnic groups in our population; a common system of purpose and ideals inculcated into the lives of all the people by a system of free public schools; and a high level of technical skill based upon a high level of general education. It is for each of us as individual citizens to do his part to preserve and enrich our inheritance. By becoming active and responsible citizens we can help to build a future worthy of the pioneer men and women who made possible the opportunities we now enjoy.

Our National Heritage

There is first the country itself. What a rich and beautiful continent we are privileged to inhabit! As one rides its farflung railroads or motors over its thousands of miles of paved highways, or follows its streams, or penetrates its forests, or takes the airplane and skimming thru [sic] the sky looks down upon the panorama beneath, it is an inspiring picture of a mighty God-given gift; truly ''America the Beautiful" as described in Katharine Lee Bates' inspiring poem ...

We have not always been appreciative of this gift. We have been wasteful of our forests and minerals, careless of our water power, ruthless in the wastage of our soil. We have come now to the day of reckoning, when by flood, dust storm, air and water pollution we are forced to face our national destiny and our relation as a people to the soil from which we draw our life. But with all the wastage, with all the lack of planning and of vision, we still have the greatest heritage of natural resources and climate to be found upon the face of the earth.

Our Heritage of Leadership

There is too the mighty heritage that has come to us in the memory of great deeds performed by the pioneer men and women who have established this nation in so brief a span of years .... Every American should be encouraged to read biography because it gives examples of the nobility to which mankind can aspire. It lifts one above the petty and trivial to go again with George Washington, with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, with Horace Mann or with Abraham Lincoln, thru the struggles that have created our national being, that have given us our freedom, and that have kept us going forward in continual efforts to improve our democracy ....

We have attached great importance in this country to literacy, to the ability to read and write. We have not attached enough importance to reading itself as a lifelong enterprise in the life of the citizen. The mere fact of being able to read does not of itself guarantee intelligent citizenship. There must be wisdom in the choice of reading. Formal schooling is too short, even if pursued thruout [sic] the college years, to enable any citizen to read all the things which he should know about the founding and growth of our Republic.

Charters of American Liberty

Beyond the heritage which is found in the lives of the men and women who have made America, stands the Republic itself, one of the greatest examples of constitutional government among free men. The full text of our American Constitution is given in this book. Every American should know its content. It is the greatest single document in the entire struggle of mankind for orderly self-government ...

Religious Ideals the Foundation

It is difficult to read this history [of the United States' founding] without seeing in it the hand of a Providence, for the struggle which was then taking place in America was a chapter in the continuous human struggle upward, a struggle against despotism, against the destructive forces often found within man himself. The birth of our democracy is partially the result of the teaching of religious leaders going back hundreds of years. Democracy can find its fullest expression in the roots of religion, which has ever emphasized the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man. For democracy to reach its highest fruition, our society must include that larger liberty and justice preached so eloquently by the Hebrew Prophets and by Jesus.

No one would contend that the Constitution is a perfect document. The very men who framed it were conscious of its shortcomings .... We have our difficulties in these days also in agreeing among ourselves as to what we want the Constitution to be and how we want it to be interpreted or administered. But these are small matters as compared with the great fact of the Constitution itself standing between us and chaos, between us and a return to the brutalities and confusion of earlier centuries.

Education, Safeguard of Democracy

We must also include in our great American heritage ... the common school--which is yours to cherish, to improve, and to use as the instrument of your intelligence. The importance of education in a democracy is eloquently stated elsewhere in this book by Horace Mann, who because of his courageous, dynamic, and eloquent leadership of the 19th-century educational revival, is known as the father of our free public schools ...

Your Many-Sided Life

There is always the danger that we shall think of our citizenship too narrowly, that we shall fail to realize its relationship to our lives as a whole. When we think of citizenship, we are likely to think of voting, of helping to choose good candidates, of serving in public office, on a jury, perhaps of being drafted into the armed services. These are specific tasks that cannot be neglected if the individual is to count himself as a good citizen. But back of these duties stands life itself, the art of living so that life shall be good and worthy of the human race. You cannot separate your citizenship and the exercise of your civic duties from the rest of your life. Your aspirations, interests, ideals, tastes, and habits influence the performance of your civic duties. If your life is noble and rich, your citizenship will express that nobility ...

Your Challenge

As you read this book, ask yourself what you as a citizen can do to pass on the torch of democracy and to make the nation better and stronger. Determine to do your part to keep democracy true to the ideals of its founders. Ask yourself again and again thru the years: "What kind of a country and what kind of world do I really want? What kind of a life for myself and my loved ones?" Ask yourself what you can do to achieve the following personal goals:

  1. To keep fit physically, mentally, and ethically thru a careful routine of living.
  2. To exalt the family and the community of neighbors as the foundation of civilized culture.
  3. To give attention to civic duty with a determination to maintain our democratic personal rights, political liberties, and representative institutions.
  4. To take the long look even beyond our generation and to sow the seeds of a better day.
  5. To find my part and to do it patiently, consistently, and well; one day at a time; without thought of reward; losing myself in the common good.
  6. To hold fast to the ideals of the Golden Rule and the brotherhood of man.
  7. To help perfect a world order enabling all people everywhere to enjoy what they cherish for themselves.

Democratic government can rise no higher than the intelligence, purpose, and conscience of the individual citizen.

Vol. 05, Issue 27, Page 16

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