Exploring the Sense of Civic Responsibility

As citizens of the United States, it is not enough that we just become law-abiding people and follow what the constitution tells us. It is essential, too, that we bear in mind some virtues that promote civic responsibility. We can do this by being involved in addressing social problems in an informed and positive manner within our community. For a community to exist and be sustained, members must share common goals and values aimed at increasing the quality of life within the community. No one should be surprised that in a community where competitive and individualistic values are taught, people behave in accordance with such values.

When that happens in a society, for example, people may stop obeying the law. Running stoplights may become a common occurrence because the individualist thinks it rational to arrive at the destination sooner. If someone is killed, it will be a pedestrian, not the driver. But, each of us is at some time a pedestrian. This is why a community cannot be maintained, unless members value others and the community as a whole, as well as themselves.

Civic responsibility is defined as the “active participation in the public life of a community, in an informed, committed, and constructive manner, with a focus on the common good” (Gottlieb and Robinson, 2002). In any nation that embraces democracy, civic responsibility need to be instilled among the people so that mutual respect can be promoted and unity can be achieved. We all know that democracy cannot flourish if there are deep levels of hostility, animosity, and dislike among its citizens.

If citizens are indifferent and uncaring about each other’s plight and circumstances, a democracy will not last. Children and adolescents need to have the experiences necessary to build a caring commitment to all citizens within our society. Urie Bronfrenbrenner (1979) stated that:

No society can long sustain itself unless its members have learned the sensitivities, motivations, and skills involved in assisting and caring for other human beings. It is possible for a person of 18 years of age to graduate from high school without even having had to do a piece of work on which someone else truly depended . . . without ever having cared for, or even held, a baby; without ever having looked after someone who was old, ill, or lonely; or without having comforted or assisted another human being who really needed help (p. 53).

An important aspect of caring about other people is civility. Civility is more than politeness and good manners. It is a reflection of conscious intention and awareness of the value and worth of the other person. Genuine civility is how human beings relate to and support one another for the common good. However, Louis Gawthrop (1984) coined the term “ethic of civility” in which we he stated that most citizens function under the rule of law, based on written codes and standards, rather than of people.

We seek to do good by not doing evil. Because we cannot define what is good, it is simply easier to find what is wrong and try to fix it. We assume that through the detailed specification of what is wrong, public officials can be counted on to do what is right. Gawthrop (1984) argued that this results in a static, dry, and barren desert of mediocrity and unresponsiveness. Civility, he suggests, will be failed reform (pp. 138–145).

Gawthrop (1984) suggests a creative ethic, drawn from John Dewey’s philosophy, designed for a dynamic rather than a static world. Because the world is dynamic in this view, sociopolitical reality cannot be found in objectivity; it can be found only in relating to events and people around us.

“The objective situation must always be replaced by the evolving situation, which depends extensively on the cumulative development of progressive experience” (Gawthrop 1984, p. 146). Reality, according to Gawthrop, “is in the relating, in the activity between the subject and the object in any behavioral interaction. Yet reality emerges from the endless evolving of these relatings, and indeed relating emergent component situations, which also might be called the evolving situation” (p. 146).

What Gawthrop is describing is renewing civic responsibility both as an idea and as a capacity. The capacity here is the structured pattern of interaction between public leaders, interest groups, elected officials, and citizens to find the evolving and changing public will. In this pattern, there is no escape from responsibility nor is there a collective responsibility. Only individual responsibility will do. We cannot be absolved because we work for government, and we should not be absolved because we work for corporations.

All of us are, to some degree, become involved in the process like public officials. With this concept, we include not only our obligations as citizens carrying out the laws efficiently and effectively, but also our responsibility to constantly exercise an ethic of concern for our neighbors and fellow citizens.

Schools have been tasked to promote civic responsibility among students because to be an effective learning community, all students, faculty, and staff need to adopt a set of civic values (Johnson & Johnson 1999, p. 120). To create the common culture that defines a community, common goals and shared values serve to define appropriate behavior.

As young citizens, schools need to educate students in internalizing values that underlie cooperation and integrative negotiations, such as commitment to the common good and to the well-being of other members, a sense of responsibility to contribute one’s fair share of the work, respect for the efforts of others and for them as people, behaving with integrity, caring for other members, compassion when other members are in need, and appreciation of diversity. Such civic values both underlie and are promoted by the cooperation and constructive conflict resolution that take place in the school and their community.

According to Johnson & Johnson (2002), there are three different rationales for teaching civic values are (a) preparing students to live in a democratic society, (b) making students better people, and (c) creating a caring community in which students learn. These rationales would promote democracy as founded on the premise that an informed, educated populace makes better decisions than do kings or dictators. The founders of our democracy assumed that the primary role of education, therefore, would be to teach students how to engage in the democratic process in their communities and prepare students for their role as responsible citizens (Miller 1988, p. 3).

Each American student must develop civic competencies that include the ability to reflect on an issue of common concern and reach a reasoned conclusion, advocate one’s conclusion persuasively, listen with an open mind to other people’s conclusions, view the situation from all perspectives, judge the relative merits of the positions being advocated, vote to decide which position to officially adopt, and implement the decision made. Diversity of conclusions and perspectives is seen as vital to making good decisions

Johnson and Johnson (2002) informed that the founders of U.S. democracy were firmly convinced that schools could and should bring democracy to life. Schools were to inculcate in students the conviction that democracy involves intelligent, collaborative participation in society. Through political discourse and decision making, creative individuality was to be balanced with concern for the common good and the welfare of others. Equality, justice, caring, and civic responsibility were to serve as both ends and means in relationships with other people.

As John F. Kennedy emphasized in his famous Inaugural Speech (1961): “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.” In this statement, Kennedy inculcated the essence of American civic responsibility by saying that we should get involved in honing our country by contributing ourselves in service of the greater good for all people. With issues like global warming, we can do our part in preserving the environment by doing it in our small ways of conserving energy.

We can inform everyone by doing research about what we can do to stop global warming. By working together towards the greater good of every American, we already uphold civic responsibility.

In the end, we must imbibe a set of values that are specifically spelled out in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. This must be internalized by all U.S. citizens because the survival of a democracy depends on the virtue of its people, and without commitment to each other’s well-being, democracy cannot thrive.

Works CitedBronfrenbrenner, Urie. (1979). The Ecology of Human Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gawthrop, Louis C.  Public Sector Management, Systems, and Ethics, Bloomington, Indiana: University of Indiana Press, 1984.

Johnson, David W. and Johnson, Roger T.  The Three Cs of School and Classroom Management. In H. Freiberg (Ed.), Beyond Behaviorism: Changing the Classroom Management Paradigm (pp. 119–144). Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1999.

Johnson, David W. and Johnson, Roger T. Chapter 11 – Teaching Civic Values. Multicultural Education and Human Relations: Valuing Diversity. NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2002.

Kennedy, John F. Inaugural Address, January, 20 1961.

Miller, Gary E. The Meaning of General Education. New York: Wiley, 1988.