CULLOWHEE -- American educators must make it a priority to resume teaching "old-fashioned" notions of citizenship and personal responsibility, or risk a continuing erosion in traditional ideals of democracy and self-government, say participants in a recent conference on citizenship held at Western Carolina University.
A call for reintroducing the lost concept of citizenship to U.S. classrooms was first and foremost among recommendations in a policy report issued this week by Western's Public Policy Institute, co-sponsor of the November conference.
"We are the legacy of generations of Americans who embraced the responsibility of citizenship. From the colonists who sparked the American Revolution to the GIs of the 1940s and later Korea and Vietnam, this country was built by concerned individuals who helped ensure democracy for the future," said Jeffrey Sykes, assistant news editor for the Western Carolinian student newspaper, which co-sponsored the conference.
"Had earlier Americans not embraced the practice of good citizenship, we would not enjoy the rights and liberties we have today. If we fail to practice good citizenship, what will our children have in the future? Now is the time for students especially to renew this country's commitment to the philosophical tenants of life, liberty and justice for all," said Sykes, a senior history major from Winston-Salem. "We are the future. We are the stewards of the tree of liberty."
More than 500 people, including high school and college students from Western North Carolina, attended the conference on citizenship. After hearing presentations by several university professors, two state legislators and Steven Hochman, longtime assistant to former President Jimmy Carter, conference participants divided into "policy panels" to discuss recommendations for educational citizenship priorities.
"All panels agreed that, over the last several decades, there has been a gradual decline in emphasis on citizenship in American education," said Gordon Mercer, director of the Public Policy Institute at Western. "Recent polls indicate that much of the American public believes schools are no longer doing as good a job on citizenship as when they were in school. Panel members think there is a need for more emphasis from schools in addressing citizenship, democracy and responsibility."
A panel made up primarily of university students called citizenship "the building block of government for and by the people," and recommended that the long-lost legacy of education for citizen involvement and participation "must be rebuilt block by block."
Another group pointed a finger of blame at an increased emphasis on student performance on standardized tests as the lone measure of success of a school and its teachers. A panel composed of Enka Middle School students called for "schools that are relevant, active and participatory, and not schools that are paper- and pencil-driven by state tests," the report states.
Educators often have been reluctant to teach civics and citizenship because they relate to such values as honesty, courtesy and respect -- values that many Americans have felt should be taught at home or at church, rather than school, Mercer said. The public opinion pendulum may be swinging back the other way, as most policy groups at Western's conference recommended that values related to good citizenship be returned to the classroom, at both the public school and college levels.
Other policy recommendations include introducing community service requirements into the educational curriculum; encouraging students to register and vote; promoting newspaper readership among young people so they will be better informed about current events; and establishing local programs through which older citizens can serve as mentors to alienated youth.
The November conference was the second major event sponsored by Western's newly organized Public Policy Institute, an organization formed to study issues of importance to Western North Carolina and beyond and to develop policy options to address these issues. A March 1999 conference on domestic terrorism, with a keynote address by the head of the nation's counterterrorism efforts, attracted nearly 450 law enforcement officers, emergency medical personnel and concerned citizens from across the Southeast.