The following piece was written by Jason L.S. Raia, Executive Vice President of Freedoms Foundation
Recently, Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge, a civic education non-profit working to inspire the next generation of America’s leaders, made the decision to close its campus until early June in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Hundreds of students will not be participating in programs in this, our busiest time of year.
Stark polarization and incivility have come to define contemporary politics. Now coronavirus threatens to heighten these fissures, but it need not. There is an opportunity for national unity in the face of this crisis. The lessons on civic responsibility at the heart of our education programs have never been more important than now. They serve as a reminder of “the better angels of our nature” Abraham Lincoln invoked in his first inaugural address.
For Freedoms Foundation, civic responsibility is summarized in our Bill of Responsibilities. This companion to the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, was created in 1985 in preparation for the bicentennial of the US Constitution.
The core principles include accountability, respect, generosity, and participation. Each speaks powerfully to how we – both individually and as a nation – must move forward in the coming days and weeks.
(1) “Be fully responsible for our own actions and the consequences of those actions.” Personal accountability is necessary in a free society because freedom is ultimately about choices, and choices have consequences. Today, those choices could be fatal for ourselves or those around us. Crowding into bars. Hoarding toilet paper. Stealing masks from hospitals. Thronging beaches for spring break. These are not the actions of accountable individuals. The choices we make could mean the difference between overcoming this pandemic with fewer casualties and only temporary economic damage or the specter of worst case scenarios.
(2) “Respect the rights of others…respect the law.” When I was still a classroom teacher, my one rule was respect – it is foundational to human interaction. You can be frustrated and angry and still be respectful of others. My friend Dee who works for the post office was just commenting on the uptick of rude behavior workers are facing from customers recently. Being a responsible citizen means showing respect even in the anxiety-ridden atmosphere of the coronavirus spread. Take a moment to thank your pharmacist or grocery clerk, who are making risks so we can fight the virus.
The government decisions to close bars, restaurants, and other “non-essential” businesses, close schools and universities, change police arrest procedures, and offer a two-trillion dollar economic package may not be universally popular. Some think government has gone too far while others think they have not gone far enough. We are a nation of laws, and in a democracy we have mechanisms for affecting policy decisions. (More on that below.) Disobeying the law (or government emergency measures), even when we disagree with them, is not the answer. Nor is it a responsible choice when it may impact the health and safety of other.
(3) “Give sympathy, understanding, and help to others.” Generosity toward others has always been a hallmark of American society. Even before the founding of the republic, Benjamin Franklin, here in Philadelphia, founded the first volunteer fire company, an educational academy (now University of Pennsylvania), and the Pennsylvania Hospital. All in the name of improving society, and doing what individuals could instead of waiting for government to step in and provide such important necessities.
Individual efforts to help others in the midst of coronavirus spread can be an important element of fighting the virus. Civic responsibility meands finding ways to help, starting with your family and neighbors. I have been talking to my 81-year old father, who is in the highest risk group for Covid-19 infection, to make sure he avoids exposure. Shopping for neighbors who are self-quarantining or teaching them to order grocery deliveries online can make a difference too.
(4) “Participate constructively in the nation’s political life.” In a representative democracy, the government should be a direct reflection of we the people, at least in theory. In reality, it is a reflection of those who participate. Though voting is what we hear about most, voting is minimal participation. Upset with the government coronavirus response? Contact your representative. Tell them what you think. Engage in discussions, respectfully, about what is important to you. In the earliest days of the republic, pamphlets were printed to circulate ideas and arguments, like Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. Now we have social media, and under the right circumstances. Use it for the good of our democracy.
In times of great crisis, the American people have always risen to the occasion. In the days after the 9/11 attacks, the unity of our country was possibly the most important outcome of that awful day. We have the same opportunity today. This is not a time to panic. It is a time to remember our civic responsibilities. What a lesson for young people throughout the country to see Americans united in their determination to be accountable, respectful, and generous, while participating in our political system more actively. We can emerge stronger at the end.
Jason is also President-elect of the Pennsylvania Council for the Social Studies.