sealPurdue News

July 1997

Citizenship: More than a right, it's a responsibility

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- In the 1800s, when clipper ships passed one another on the high seas, three questions were called out from ship to ship: "Who are you?" What is your destination?" "Who is your captain?" Ask these same questions today of students in classrooms across the country, and many won't know the answers.

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Sailors asked those questions to determine the character of another ship. These "character" questions are also vital to the welfare of our children and our country, according to experts on citizenship education.

"Society emphasizes that the purpose of education is to get a job, rather than to learn how to live a meaningful life," says Lynn Nelson, director of Purdue University's James F. Ackerman Center for Democratic Citizenship. "We must stop defining the outcomes of education so narrowly."

The Ackerman Center has taken a national leadership role in creating knowledgeable, responsible citizens. The center educates teachers on how to implement citizenship programs in their classrooms.

By not giving citizenship its due in the classroom, Nelson says, we are validating the increasing apathy among today's young people.

Apathy among students is evident even in the early grades. Fourth-grade teacher Verona Levine of Carlsbad, Calif., sees many unmotivated children. "They lack experience in citizenship. Even their parents may not have the skills or foundation to share what it means with these kids," she says.

Nelson defines "citizenship" as participation in society, government, and voluntary and civic organizations. He says voting is important, but it is just one aspect of good citizenship. Nelson says students need to have a knowledge of history and a clear understanding of the political system, and they need to learn how to treat one another as people, rather than objects. If not, he says, society will continue to grow more fragmented.

One of the activities sponsored by the Ackerman Center is a teacher institute. Recently, 20 teachers from across the nation, including Levine, met for two weeks on the Purdue campus to help them develop custom-made programs for teaching citizenship in their schools.

One of the institute's instructors, Michael Hartoonian, a national education consultant who will assume a professorship at the University of Minnesota this fall, says students have no idea what the Founding Fathers had in mind.

"For years I've been asking 12th-grade students what 'freedom of the pursuit of happiness' means. Not one of them has understood. They think they have the right to anything, a situation that leads to anarchy," Hartoonian says.

"Actually, Thomas Jefferson wanted to use the words 'public happiness' when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, as he understood that giving makes you happy -- the idea that it is more blessed to give than to receive."

If students are confused, it may be that they lack role models. "Part of the problem is the confusion between democracy as an ideal and democracy as practiced by politicians," Nelson says. "Students in a civics class should not only learn about their rights as citizens, but also about their responsibilities."

Hartoonian says: "In one way, this republic is in serious trouble. We have basically written off one, maybe two generations. We are behind in the development of citizen scholars. As a result, many of our institutions are sick, having run out of people who understand democratic values."

Nelson acknowledges that values, character and citizenship are being taught indirectly in public schools -- through children's stories in the primary grades and through literature, history and civics in the secondary grades.

"But civics and government are electives rather than required courses in many schools," Nelson says. "It's time for history, civics and the social sciences to claim their place in the curriculum."

Teaching citizenship in schools hasn't always been taboo. Nelson says report cards used to include letter grades and marks for citizenship, conduct and participation in school activities.

"Public schools began phasing out the teaching and evaluation of citizenship in the late 1950s as a response to parents who wanted a vocation taught at school, values taught at home," he says. "The only pocket of education teaching citizenship on a regular basis is the private school system.

"Teaching the meaning of citizenship is much more than the transmission of content. It's teaching our young people to live a life as well as make a living."

Hartoonian puts it this way: "If you ask people why they want their children to receive a good education, they'll respond something like 'So they can be better off than I am.' In reality, the purpose of public education is so that children will become better, period."

Source: Lynn Nelson, (765) 494-4755; e-mail,
Writers: Kate Walker, (765) 404-2073; e-mail
Beth Forbes, (765) 494-9723; e-mail,
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: A color photo of report cards from the 1960s and '70s highlighting grades for citizenship is available. Ask for the photo called Nelson/Citizenship. To interview Lynn Nelson or Michael Hartoonian, contact Nelson at (765) 494-4755.

Photo caption:

All these report cards from the 1960s and '70s included grades for citizenship. The highlighted section is from a 1963 report card.

Color photo, electronic transmission, and Web and ftp download available. Photo ID: Nelson/Citizenship Download Photo Here

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