May 31, 2011


Citizenship and Memory: Patriotic citizens are not born, they are made. (Amy Kass & Leon Kass & Diana Schaub, 5/30/11, National Review)

Recognizing the importance of American citizenship, character, and identity is relatively easy. Knowing how to produce them is difficult, especially given the obstacles, old and new, that we face today. Active and attached citizens of good character are not born, they are made. Their making depends partly on explicit instruction, partly on habituation in character-shaping activities — in homes, schools, houses of worship, community organizations, youth groups, voluntary associations, branches of military service, and the like. How all these influences work and coalesce is, in truth, something of a mystery, especially if we remember that making citizens involves more than correcting people’s ignorance or refining their opinions. It requires, above all, the shaping of the central attitudes, sensibilities, and concerns of their being. It is precisely to address these deeper, and often neglected, aspects of making citizens that we have assembled this volume.

Many people in the United States, concerned about the state of civic literacy and national identity, have been developing new programs of instruction that emphasize American history, political thought, and civic institutions. These worthy efforts are largely cognitive: They seek to correct our abysmal ignorance by providing knowledge. But such knowledge will not by itself produce love of country or desires to do something in its service. Knowing the good, while necessary, is not sufficient for doing the good.

Another recent approach to improving civic participation emphasizes learning by doing. Called “service learning,” this approach sends students out into the community to perform mandated services for others, in the hope that the students thereby develop the habit of serving. But these worthy humanitarian activities are usually framed in social services’ language of “client” and “provider,” or the cosmopolitan language of compassion and care, rather than in the political and polity-specific language of American citizenship. And they are rarely accompanied by the sorts of study and discussions that could inform the sentiments employed or make the students more thoughtful about the character and purposes of the polity in which they live and serve.

Developing robust and committed American citizens is a matter of both the heart and the head. Like all building of character, it requires educating our moral imaginations, sentiments, and habits of heart — matters displayed in but also nurtured by great works of imaginative literature. As has been known at least since Homer and Plato, it is the poets, not the philosophers and historians, who shape the loves and hates of souls and cities. Today as well, works of fiction speak most immediately, engagingly, and movingly to the hearts and minds of readers of all ages. For these reasons, in our new anthology What So Proudly We Hail: The American Soul in Story, Speech, and Song, we have adopted a literary approach to making citizens, an approach centering on stories.

By furnishing our imaginations with well-drawn characters confronting concrete difficulties in well-defined circumstances, a well-crafted story can shed light on our national character and civic practices. By enabling us to identify and sympathize with the characters and the situations in which they find themselves, the story invites us to reflect also on ourselves and our own personal and civic experiences. For a practical-minded people like us, not generally given to deep philosophical inquiry or long epic sagas, the short story is a perfect vehicle for generating fruitful self-examination and self-knowledge.

In fact, it may well be the supremely American literary form, whose “nervous, formal, concentrated, brief, and penetrating” literary character, as Wallace Stegner said, best “expresses us as a people.” Many of us love to tell stories, and most of us love to hear them. But to hear — or read — and discuss the best stories told by the best storytellers is more than a way of passing time. It is a way of deepening time, by taking us to the profoundly humanizing truths contained in the ordinary surfaces of our experience. With the help of a great storyteller, we can see in the commonplace the things that really matter. Yes, stories are entertaining, but at their best they inform and reform us by dramatizing belief and rendering feeling thoughtful.

Rather than wasting so much time in schools on math and science and the like, we should return to using public education to train the citizenry for its responsibilities.

Posted by at May 31, 2011 6:11 AM

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