John W. Gardner
June 17, 1999
Citizen involvement is simply a further extension of the sense of responsibility that is the root of community. So I will begin with a few words on community, and society.
A Society, with its driving institutions and great ventures, its power structure, its enormous capacity to reward and punish, may seem like a huge, unshakable edifice. But it's built on intangibles, as we all know - every beam and girder held together by mutual obligations and expectations, shared beliefs (religious and secular), laws and traditions, faith, caring, trust and responsibility. Weaken those beyond a certain point and the great edifice crumbles. As Prospero said in The Tempest, it "melts into air, into thin air."
The intangible bonds of society that hold us together in custom and duty, impede the savagery of human impulse, and energize us for the accomplishment of shared purposes. When the bonds of community unravel, fearful things happen. The daily news offers countless grim examples of the shredding of the social fabric. Something is coming apart that prisons can't put back together. That is the prime reason for rebuilding community. Not to create a cozy and nostalgic neighborliness, but to reweave the web of reciprocal obligations and trust, the shared beliefs, the responsibility and caring that only family and community can generate.
Under favorable circumstances, as everyone knows, preparation for community membership begins in infancy. A child learns very early that it has some responsibility to "the other", to the group - and that, as I said, is the root of community. Mother tells Mary that she mustn't hit her little brother, and she tells little brother that he mustn't throw Mary's hair ribbons in the toilet. Actual case. Responsibility! Reciprocity! Mutual obligation.
It's in the family setting that children get their first clues on how to think about and deal with group differences. Racism starts at the family dinner table. It is implicit in the way parents talk, that there are groups they think of as inferior, the children will pick it up as though it were an infectious disease. With each succeeding stage of childhood - childcare, kindergarten, elementary school - children should find themselves inducted into a setting that will nurture their community-building impulses, and curb the impulses that undermine social cohesion. It will only happen of course if the setting is in fact the community, and we know that it often is not. We have a long way to go in ensuring that both school and classroom really are communities.
Obviously, adolescence is a challenge - in this as in everything else. Loyalties are reexamined. Pieties are reassessed. Self-doubt visits and re-visits. We can't altogether moderate the fears and anger and wild hopes of adolescence, but we can ensure that the community-building messages continue.
It's a time when new roles are tried on for size. Some of them are passing fancies borrowed from pop culture, some are momentary wish fulfillment, but some are truly prophetic of adulthood. Behind all the fantasies, most adolescents are asking, "What kind of adult do I want to be? What kind of adult will I be?" It's an important time to raise again the claims of community. In fact, the community-building impulses of youth are quite strong, as you know. Gangs are an aberrant form of community.
Civic engagement - the act of participation of the citizen in public matters - is, as I implied earlier, a natural extension of community responsibility to the larger arena. But it isn't an easy extension.
To ensure that we build on that base, we are going to have to alter the extraordinary emphasis on individual performance that begins with elementary school, and continues through high school, college, graduate school and on into professional and executive careers. In school today the emphasis is rarely on one's relation to the other, on one's relation to the group. It's almost invariably on how I solve that equation, how I write that essay. Me and my SAT scores! Only in team sports is there regard to the successful functioning of the group - but even there more than a few coaches put their main emphasis on the star player.
I am perfectly aware that a fair number of teachers, a small vanguard I would say, are working very hard to bring community back into the classroom and to deal with other than individual performance.
The result? Nearly every one of our cities has enough leadership talent to run a small nation, but most of the potential leaders are comfortably insulated from the cities' problems. They are hidden away in well upholstered, highly remunerative professional and executive niches - in the law firms, in the corporations, and so on - still pursuing their ideal of individual achievement.
When this nation was founded, we had a population of a little more than 3 million and we produced 6 world class leaders - Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin, Madison and [John] Adams. Today our population is more than 80 times three million. We should have 80 times 6 or 480 Jeffersons, Washingtons and Franklins. Where are they? I am convinced they are out there, schooled as great individual performers, unaware of what they can do for their community, their city, their country.
Citizens can make a difference. The environmental movement, the civil rights movement, and others stand as testimony to the extraordinary power of citizens when they decide to move.
It is said that today citizens don't get involved because they don't trust government. But government (and other powerful institutions) will not become worthy of our trust until citizens take positive action to hold them accountable. Citizen engagement comes first.
With respect to citizen participation, our leadership in public affairs, we have a pipeline problem. It takes millions of kids playing sandlot ball to produce a Mark McGuire or a Sammy Sosa. Big pipeline! We need a vastly greater number of sandlot citizens.
Young people need early practice in acting for or in behalf of the group - in the classroom and in after-school activities. They should experience community service, early. In the later grades a corrective is needed to the overpowering attraction of the specialist ideal. As members of the species, versatility is our birthright, and we need not abandon it in order to become specialists. We have this tremendous drive toward specialization, certainly at the college level and even in later high school. Effective citizens are generalists, and leaders are generalists.
The best thing adults could do today to prepare adolescents for civic involvement is to set an example. What do adolescents see in adult citizen performance today? For the most part, utter lassitude. The American eagle has been hit with some kind of tranquilizer shot, and is snoozing in the grass. Time for a wake-up call. And those of you who have not succumbed to the contemporary disaffection and alienation must help. You must speak the word of life to your fellow Americans. When the American spirit awakens, it transforms worlds. But it does not awaken without a challenge. Citizens need to understand that this moment in history does in fact present a challenge that demands the best that is in them.
Will they respond? I direct your attention to a trait shared by a great many citizens of this land. There is in them something waiting to be awakened, wanting to be awakened. Most Americans welcome the voice that lifts them out of themselves. They want to be better people. They want to make this a better country.
A little while ago, a highly placed politician asked me what I thought he should say to the American people, or attempt to do for them. I said, "give them back their future."
When most of us were growing up, the future beckoned. When my mother was a little girl living on the Nebraska prairie in a sod house, the future beckoned. When I was a boy in California during World War I, (not the Spanish-American war!), the future beckoned. For Americans everywhere, the future was the repository for expectations and dreams - not just for ourselves, but for all humankind. Our minds were alive with possibility and hope. Where did it go?
We are capable of so much that is not now asked of us. The courage and the spirit are there, poorly hidden beneath self-interest and self-indulgence, left somnolent by the moral indifference of contemporary life, waiting to be called forth when the moment comes. My word to you is - call it forth. Call it forth!