“However, take care and be earnestly on your guard not to forget the things which your own eyes have seen, nor let them slip from your memory as long as you live, but teach them to your children and to your children’s children.” Deuteronomy 4: 9
In socially durable communities, each member holds in common an understanding of who the community has been through history and a vision of the future to which each member contributes over time. History and ideals are taught to those who join and are constantly reinforced among the existing members. When someone joins a fraternal organization, a church, or a civic club, the new member learns that organization’s origin story, who the founders were, what the subsequent history of the organization has been, and what they say about the values and principles that define the organization. The origin story and anecdotes about the central figures in the organization may be embellished or completely apocryphal, but they define who the community is, and who the people are who are members in relation to each other.
The author and entrepreneur Seth Godin describes this as “People like us do things like this,” and then goes on to say ” we are driven to become a member in good standing of the tribe. We want to be respected by those we aspire to connect with, we want to know what we ought to do to be part of that circle.”
If our governance at the neighborhood, town, state, national, or global level is to be durable and regenerative, fundamental norms and values, contained in our founding documents, constitutions, and statutes must be learned and understood at some fundamental and shared level by our citizens and taught and reinforced consistently. Societies and cultures that have persisted and thrived over time have understood this, as evidenced by oral traditions that have survived over hundreds and thousands of years before being written down.
If we feel that we have lost our way, one reason may be that we have lost an understanding of where we have come from as a society, what inherited values we hold in common, and what our shared vision is for the future.
The decline and elimination of civics education in K-12 schools in the US may not be the cause of this loss of a shared purpose and story, but it is at least a symptom. The study of citizens’ rights and duties and government workings has been declining for years. The Annenberg Public Policy Center found in a 2016 survey that only 26 percent of Americans can name all three branches of government. Jonathan R. Cole wrote in a Nov. 8, 2016, article for The Atlantic, “It is telling, for example, that in 2009, 89 percent of those who took a test on civic knowledge expressed confidence they could pass it; in fact, 83 percent would have failed.” More than 80 percent of college seniors at 55 top-ranked schools would have earned a D or F on historical knowledge, according to a 2015 study published by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. The survey found that about half of respondents couldn’t state the length of the terms for Senate and House members.
In prior years, students learned stories about our nation’s founders and other notable presidents and leaders, and we were taught stories, sometimes fanciful (George Washington and the cherry tree) to make a moral or ethical point. At the same time, the language of the Declaration of Independence (“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”), highlights from the US Constitution (“We, the People, in order to form a more perfect union….”) and the Bill of Rights were made familiar to all. We understood that principles like Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Assembly, Freedom to Exercise our Religion, and Freedom of the Press were part of who we are. Again, “People like us do things (and believe things) like this.”
It may have had to do with the fact that I was in elementary school when our state of South Carolina marked the 300th anniversary of its founding and in high school when our nation celebrated its Bicentennial in 1976, but when I was growing up there seemed to be much more emphasis on history and the fundamental ideas around the founding of our country. We even had Schoolhouse Rock during Saturday morning cartoons (I still sing that song in my head whenever I want to remember the Preamble to the Constitution).
None of this was perfect, though, far from it, and many stories we were taught in school were wrong and harmful. Being a student in the American South in the 60s and 70s, what we were taught about slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and segregation were wrong, and I have had to unlearn many lessons and stories we were taught as students. Likewise, many people who were brought up in a particular spiritual tradition may feel the same way as they continue their spiritual journey as adults and discover that the stories they were taught when they were young no longer hold true for them.
Now, as we are rethinking our history in light of the social justice movement that reemerged over the last year, we need to come up with new storytelling about our founding and what is important to us as a free society that binds us together. Yes, slavery and racism fouled our nation, and we need to be conscious of that and acknowledge it. Even so, this country’s founders and its founding documents also articulated ideals of individual liberty and responsibility, the importance of fairness and equality of opportunity, balanced with the importance of community and decision-making through democratic processes. These founding ideals must be retold in updated stories that are relevant for this time. They must be made relevant to people to whom they did not apply in the times when they were first uttered, but which must include them now. That is our task, I think, in building governance that is just, transparent, democratic, and regenerative.
Our work as CityCrafters, in building communities that are socially just and environmentally restorative, is to rediscover our shared history, identify our common values, and create new stories that allow us to envision a shared future in which all can participate and flourish.