Our nation faces a moral crisis without a clear vision of our ideals and core values. Democracy is based on free people exchanging ideas and deliberating options to serve the common good, within a context of national ideals and values. “The sense of the community shall govern,” said Alexander Hamilton. Early in U.S. history, citizens would come together in town meetings to identify problems, deliberate options and plan solutions to problems.
Democracy and creative problem solving require a moral common ground. The American Founders gave us universal principles in the Declaration of Independence, the Great Seal and the Constitution. These include equality, liberty, unity (E Pluribus Unum), democracy and justice. They were not applied to everyone (notably women, slaves and Native Americans). This tragic mistake does not reduce the value of the founding ideals and core values. We must acknowledge these mistakes in our history and celebrate the sacrifices and achievements of past generations.
Our constitutional republic has worked for 230 years, with contributions and sacrifices from many generations. The Founders challenged each generation, with the unfinished pyramid on the Great Seal, to identify problems and contribute solutions for them.
There are two challenges for America, if we are to sustain our republic.
1. Renew our commitment to our founding ideals and core values and create solutions to critical immediate and long-term problems.
2. Prepare the next generation to rednew and commit to the principles and practices of American democracy.
Imagine what students think about the way politicians are handling our national and community problems. They see disrespectful power struggles between conservative and liberal factions. In Fresno, they saw the failure to provide needed support for parks, especially in underserved neighborhoods. At the national level, they see a failure to solve the immigration crisis, poverty and access to health services. At the international level, they see ongoing wars, economic threats and the climate crisis.
When we ask students to say the Pledge of Allegiance, we expect them to affirm their commitment to the American republic and the democratic principles and values for which it stands. This is not a realistic expectation until we give students a clear vision of our ideals and core values, along with an experience of these in the governance of classes, schools, communities, national and global levels.
Students are overwhelmed with the challenges of technology, environmental and health crises, poverty and violence. Too many students suffer from alienation, trauma and depression. They lack a sense of agency, that they can create solutions to complex problems in their lives and communities. They need the experience of serving something greater than themselves, working together with a team (group, class, school…) to research a problem and develop an effective solution.
The best way to prepare the next generation is to provide guided practice in democratic problem solving, with adaptations for current challenges and opportunities. When students experience the respectful integration of multiple perspectives and work together to solve problems, they appreciate our democratic principles and practices. They understand the meaning of the original national motto, “E Pluribus Unum.” When they say the Pledge of Allegiance, it becomes a true commitment to our national and universal values.
Four years ago, in response to a call to action from the California Department of Education and the California Judicial Council, a group of concerned community leaders addressed the challenge of revitalizing civic education in Fresno County public schools. The Fresno Civic Learning Partnership has created the Civic Education Center. We work in 3 districts (Fresno, Fowler and Sanger) training teachers to emphasize civic values and democratic skills as they guide students to research and help solve problems in their community. This year, over 1,200 students in K-12 schools participated in the program, implementing civic service projects as they learn and practice the civic values and skills of responsible citizenship.
We can renew our commitment to our founding ideals and core values as we prepare the next generation to commit to the principles and practices of American democracy. Doing this in U.S. history classes (fifth, eighth and 11th grades), gives all students the experience of civic participation and the opportunity to express their ideas and concerns as they prepare for civic leadership.
Minkler is president of the board of the Civic Education Center in Fresno, www.civicedcenter.org