The cover of the U.S. Constitution.

The cover of the U.S. Constitution. Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/giftlegacy

Too many Americans are quick to claim their rights as citizens without recognizing that these rights come with responsibilities. These two concepts are inseparable. You do not deserve your rights unless you live up to your responsibilities.

The founders based our whole system on what they called “virtuous” citizens. By this they meant not just being honest and committed, but being devoted to their duties and to their fellow citizens.

What are these duties? First, of course, is to actively participate in their own governance, to educate themselves on the issues and, most importantly, to vote. Second, and equally important, they personally must be defenders of democracy and justice. This means they have an obligation to stand up publicly for what they believe, especially when it is hard, and defend the rights of other citizens, especially the weak. 

Fundamental to our system is compromise. The founders believed that compromise was the grease that made democracy work. Nobody can have it all their own way, nor should they. Compromise, for all its faults and bumps along the way, usually leads to a better solution. 

In these days of divisiveness and hatred, compromise has become a dirty word, an act of betrayal to the single-minded insistence on having one’s own way. But without it, the system breaks down. We cannot let this happen. Building compromise is hard work and only possible if there is some level of mutual trust. This is key, and requires honesty or “virtuousness,” as the founders put it. That is what we do not have now.

How can we reverse this toxic and dangerous situation?

Part of the answer lies in educating the citizenry on their responsibilities as well as their rights. There are plenty of organizations expounding on the peoples’ rights, often for self-serving purposes. We urgently need to balance this with an equally compelling message demanding people live up to their responsibilities. This needs to be a many-pronged effort, but it should begin with educators.

In what used to be called “civics education,” grade school and high school students learned how our democracy works and what their duties were. These classes were often considered a boring requirement taught by people not adequately trained. Years ago, even these ineffectual efforts disappeared.

Civics education needs to be revived, but in a new, better form and perhaps under a new home. Teach it under the banner of U. S. Government or American History.

It's a start, but much more must be done. Colleges can play a big role. Government courses need to emphasize citizens’ responsibilities as a basic message.

At the Roosevelt School at Long Island University, we have joined this effort. The principles of civics will play both a direct and indirect role in all we do. One of our first initiatives — accomplished with our partners, The Society of Presidential Descendants and the United States Congress — is the celebration of National Civics Day on Oct. 27. That is the day of the publication of the first of the Federalist Papers and will be an annual reminder to all Americans of their duties to their country.

Beyond colleges, many other organizations have joined the cause. We all must support them.

The abysmal ignorance of many of our citizens is an existential threat to our very way of life. If we continue to go down this road, we are in real danger of losing our beloved democracy.

This guest essay reflects the views of Tweed Roosevelt, great-grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States, and founder and chair of the Roosevelt School at Long Island University.

This guest essay reflects the views of Tweed Roosevelt, great-grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States, and founder and chair of the Roosevelt School at Long Island University.

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