Politics & Policy

Citizenship and Memory

Patriotic citizens are not born, they are made.

Numerous studies have documented the cultural and historical illiteracy of today’s youth, even among graduates of our best colleges. Knowledge of American history and government has declined, in part because these subjects are no longer centerpieces of public education. Very few colleges require students to take even a single course in matters American. Studies show that, despite volunteering more for community service, today’s young people, compared with those of generations past, are less interested in public affairs, less likely to vote regularly, and less likely to stay informed about politics and current events.

The reigning ideology that welcomes immigrants to our shores no longer calls for their assimilation into our “melting pot” but instead celebrates their diversity, multiplicity, and cultural distinctiveness; the political “unum” of America is lost amid the focus on the multicultural “pluribus.” Ironically, although recent immigrants (and their children) usually know from fresh experience how their lives have improved by coming to the United States, the well-off children of the native-born, knowing little of history or of current political alternatives around the globe, take for granted the privileges of American citizenship and prosperity. Increasingly, leading intellectuals, opinion leaders, and politicians talk of globalization and the need to regard ourselves as “citizens of the world.” Between such cosmopolitan universalism and ethnic and racial “tribalism,” national pride and attachment are often disparaged, and in some quarters regarded as obsolete.


Why, you might ask, does any of this matter? What difference does it make whether the next generations of Americans identify with their country, admire its institutions and ways, and devote themselves to robust civic participation? Can we not continue to enjoy our civil rights to life and liberty, and our blessings of prosperity and private happiness, however great or small our civic attachments and involvements?

Up to a point, perhaps so. The genius of our liberal democratic form of government allows most of us happily to tend our own gardens and mind our own business, inattentive to the problems that our nation faces. We are spared the often turbulent and bloody consequences of living in countries where politics is all-important and omnipresent, especially those whose illiberal regimes compel service to the state and punish deviation from official orthodoxies.

But our freedom not to care comes at a price, precisely because we live in a polity in which the people are sovereign. It is we the people who must elect the representatives to govern on our behalf, defend our nation in times of crisis, and shoulder our responsibilities in times of peace — at the very least, by upholding the law, voting in elections, paying our taxes, and serving on juries. How well will we judge, how wisely will we choose, how firmly will we stand if we don’t know who we are as Americans and why the blessings we share are worth defending and perpetuating, or if we lack the affection for our country that can move us to act in public-spirited ways?

Citizenship in the United States is only partly a national matter, for we live in a federal republic, with various levels of government — national, state, county, and local — responsible for different aspects of our common life. We depend on local schools, hospitals, transportation, libraries, colleges, museums, parks, police and fire departments, and departments of sanitation and public health — many of which require civic support and citizens’ attention.

Our life together comprises also the myriad voluntary, nongovernmental associations — from religious institutions to Little League, from soup kitchens to nature-preservation societies, from the Red Cross and the United Way to friends of the symphony and the PTA — where, through our own active participation, we give meaning to our lives and strengthen our communities, which in turn enrich our existence. How vibrant will our communal life be, how rich will our human associations be, if we think only of ourselves and our immediate families and our own pursuit of happiness? Can we have communities worth joining if we lack public spirit, civic attachment, and the character needed for active and effective civic participation?


Recognizing the importance of American citizenship, character, and identity is relatively easy. Knowing how to produce them is difficult, especially given the obstacles, old and new, that we face today. Active and attached citizens of good character are not born, they are made. Their making depends partly on explicit instruction, partly on habituation in character-shaping activities — in homes, schools, houses of worship, community organizations, youth groups, voluntary associations, branches of military service, and the like. How all these influences work and coalesce is, in truth, something of a mystery, especially if we remember that making citizens involves more than correcting people’s ignorance or refining their opinions. It requires, above all, the shaping of the central attitudes, sensibilities, and concerns of their being. It is precisely to address these deeper, and often neglected, aspects of making citizens that we have assembled this volume.

Many people in the United States, concerned about the state of civic literacy and national identity, have been developing new programs of instruction that emphasize American history, political thought, and civic institutions. These worthy efforts are largely cognitive: They seek to correct our abysmal ignorance by providing knowledge. But such knowledge will not by itself produce love of country or desires to do something in its service. Knowing the good, while necessary, is not sufficient for doing the good.

Another recent approach to improving civic participation emphasizes learning by doing. Called “service learning,” this approach sends students out into the community to perform mandated services for others, in the hope that the students thereby develop the habit of serving. But these worthy humanitarian activities are usually framed in social services’ language of “client” and “provider,” or the cosmopolitan language of compassion and care, rather than in the political and polity-specific language of American citizenship. And they are rarely accompanied by the sorts of study and discussions that could inform the sentiments employed or make the students more thoughtful about the character and purposes of the polity in which they live and serve.

Developing robust and committed American citizens is a matter of both the heart and the head. Like all building of character, it requires educating our moral imaginations, sentiments, and habits of heart — matters displayed in but also nurtured by great works of imaginative literature. As has been known at least since Homer and Plato, it is the poets, not the philosophers and historians, who shape the loves and hates of souls and cities. Today as well, works of fiction speak most immediately, engagingly, and movingly to the hearts and minds of readers of all ages. For these reasons, in our new anthology What So Proudly We Hail: The American Soul in Story, Speech, and Song, we have adopted a literary approach to making citizens, an approach centering on stories.


By furnishing our imaginations with well-drawn characters confronting concrete difficulties in well-defined circumstances, a well-crafted story can shed light on our national character and civic practices. By enabling us to identify and sympathize with the characters and the situations in which they find themselves, the story invites us to reflect also on ourselves and our own personal and civic experiences. For a practical-minded people like us, not generally given to deep philosophical inquiry or long epic sagas, the short story is a perfect vehicle for generating fruitful self-examination and self-knowledge.

In fact, it may well be the supremely American literary form, whose “nervous, formal, concentrated, brief, and penetrating” literary character, as Wallace Stegner said, best “expresses us as a people.” Many of us love to tell stories, and most of us love to hear them. But to hear — or read — and discuss the best stories told by the best storytellers is more than a way of passing time. It is a way of deepening time, by taking us to the profoundly humanizing truths contained in the ordinary surfaces of our experience. With the help of a great storyteller, we can see in the commonplace the things that really matter. Yes, stories are entertaining, but at their best they inform and reform us by dramatizing belief and rendering feeling thoughtful.

Short stories — most of them fictional, some autobiographical, and all written by American authors, living and dead — form the majority of the selections in our anthology. Supplementing the stories are important public speeches, by noted American statesmen and civic leaders, that shed light on our commitment to freedom and equality or give voice to our enduring aspirations for national and civic improvement. The speeches not only illuminate some past circumstance; thanks to their rhetorical power, they enable us today to feel more fully our lives as American citizens and to recognize which dispositions and practices enhance (and which undermine) republican self-government and ordered liberty. Carefully considered, the feelings and reactions aroused by both the speeches and the stories can be thoughtfully attached to principled opinions. And the cumulative experience of such reflective reading and discussion can foster a deeper sense of American identity and contribute to forming the character needed for robust American citizenship and public life.

The American Republic, despite its grandeur, is not simply a success story. And the American character is not simply a picture of unalloyed human excellence. The honest treatment of our subject, therefore, does not allow for chestthumping, self-congratulatory tales. Thoughtful and engaged citizenship cannot be had by simple indoctrination into the American creed. But it can be fostered by looking into the multiangled mirrors our finest authors provide, and by discovering in our reflections the richness and worth of American identity, character, and citizenship.

Amy Kass is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. Leon Kass is Madden-Jewett Chair at the American Enterprise Institute. Together they edited Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar: Readings on Courting and Marrying. Diana Schaub is a professor of political science at Loyola University Maryland. This article has been adapted from the introduction to the new anthology What So Proudly We Hail: The American Soul in Story, Speech, and Song (ISI, 2011).


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