the president on citizenship: all rhetoric?

In all of his high-profile official speeches, President Obama makes sure to speak strongly and explicitly about active citizenship as the solution to our national problems. I like to highlight and analyze these passages because reporters always completely ignore them, treating them as mere throat-clearing. (See, e.g., my piece on “Taking the President Seriously About Citizenship” in Huffington Post.)

Last night was no exception. The president opened with examples of active citizens in both the public sector and the private sector: “Today in America, a teacher spent extra time with a student who needed it, and did her part to lift America’s graduation rate to its highest level in more than three decades. An entrepreneur flipped on the lights in her tech startup, and did her part to add to the more than eight million new jobs our businesses have created over the past four years.” He added, “it is you, our citizens, who make the state of our union strong.”

President Obama then contrasted constructive citizens with the dysfunctional political system in DC. In the middle of the speech, he returned to the citizenship theme with a series of anaphoric paragraphs: “Citizenship means … Citizenship means. … Citizenship demands a sense of common cause; participation in the hard work of self-government; an obligation to serve to our communities.”

The problem is a gap between this expansive notion of citizenship and the policy agenda. For example, in k-12 and higher education, many wonderful educators and administrators are busy teaching students to be active citizens and trying to make their institutions into more valuable elements of local civil society. They have some friends inside the Obama Administration’s Department of Education. But the education agenda that the president summarized was exclusively about aligning school and college to current job requirements:

Teachers and principals in schools from Tennessee to Washington, D.C. are making big strides in preparing students with skills for the new economy – problem solving, critical thinking, science, technology, engineering, and math.  …

We’re working to redesign high schools and partner them with colleges and employers that offer the real-world education and hands-on training that can lead directly to a job and career.  We’re shaking up our system of higher education to give parents more information, and colleges more incentives to offer better value, so that no middle-class kid is priced out of a college education.

(The information that prospective students are being offered is limited to the cost of a degree, the likelihood of graduation, and employment rates of graduates.)

To be sure, work is not separate from citizenship. The president was right to characterize private and public sector workers as citizens. “Through hard work and responsibility, we can pursue our individual dreams, but still come together as one American family to make sure the next generation can pursue its dreams as well.” Still, workers and future workers must learn about and discuss common social issues. That implies an explicit focus on civics in schools and colleges and opportunities for adult citizens to make decisions together. Those ideas were missing in the State of the Union and have been largely overlooked in the administration’s actual policymaking.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.