Thursday, November 5, 2009

Gary Palmer: The Difference between an inhabitant and a citizen

  America is beset with crises… economic, financial, moral, and health care… and the list could go on. Americans have to be asking themselves how the most powerful, most prosperous nation in the world got itself into such a condition.

  In an article entitled “Great Nations Need Great Citizens” first published in July 1992, former Colorado Governor Richard Lamm wrote, “America talks endlessly about the follies of its leaders, but what about the follies of its citizens? America in many respects faces more of a ‘citizenship’ problem than a leadership problem.”

  Education is at the core of the citizenship problem. While most Americans still hold the Constitution in high regard, very few understand the fundamental principles of how our nation is supposed to work within the Constitution or that our Founding Fathers intentionally created limits on the role of government which our current leaders have violated with impunity.

  Moreover, most Americans are inadequately educated about our nation’s history, especially its founding. Survey after survey show that most American citizens, even those with degrees from America’s most highly regarded colleges and universities, largely are under-educated when it comes to American history, government and our economic system.

  Too few Americans understand the basics of our free-market economy and the importance of protecting each individual’s right to own property and to enjoy the fruits of their labor. And perhaps more fundamentally, too few Americans understand that our nation is a constitutional republic, not a democracy, in which the federal government has defined (enumerated) and limited powers.

  In giving us a republic, our Founding Fathers knew the entire experiment in self-government would depend on the quality of citizens produced by each succeeding generation… their character, their sense of civic responsibility and their understanding of, and commitment to the principles on which our nation was founded. Each generation must take responsibility for educating and training the next. For almost two hundred years, this was done through our public schools, but in the last forty or fifty years our public education system, including our colleges and universities, have abandoned this responsibility.

  It should be America’s top priority to educate the next generation and ourselves, in order to maintain our founding principles. One leader in this effort is the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI.)

  Founded in 1953, ISI works to enhance the next generation's knowledge of our nation's founding principles and nurture an appreciation of these principles in the next generation of leaders. ISI’s latest contribution to this critical effort is the publication of “We Still Hold These Truths: Rediscovering Our Principles, Reclaiming Our Future” by Matthew Spalding.

  “We Still Hold These Truths” explains the principles fundamental to strengthening and preserving our republic. Spalding writes in a clear, non-academic prose that makes his book an easy read. He not only explains the principles in plain language but also makes a compelling case that the future preservation of these principles as embodied in the Constitution depends on our willingness to engage as responsible, informed citizens. 

  Spalding reasserts the Founders’ belief that government does not exist to give us our rights, it exists to protect our rights. He reminds us that the Founders were convinced that in order for our system of government to succeed, the nation would have to produce generations of citizens with solid morals and a willingness to participate in their government.

  As Spalding says, we must rediscover America's principles as a people, teach them in our schools and give voice to them in our politics. And we must rediscover a popular understanding of constitutional government and develop leaders who will revere and abide by the Constitution. And if we are to overcome the challenges our nation currently faces, these principles must become fundamental to our politics and public policy once again because as Thomas Jefferson said, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free... it expects what never was and never will be."

  Gov. Lamm wrote: “Great nations must have great citizens, and the kind of future we will have depends on what kind of people we are and what kind of kids we produce.”  Quoting Alexis de Tocqueville, he added, “…there is an important difference between an inhabitant and a citizen.”

  Spalding has produced a timely and valuable resource which can help us educate ourselves so that we can rise above being merely inhabitants and become engaged, responsible citizens. “We Still Hold These Truths” should be at the top of everyone’s reading list.

    About the author: Gary Palmer is president of the Alabama Policy Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit research and education organization dedicated to the preservation of free markets, limited government and strong families, which are indispensable to a prosperous society.

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