Professors Ponder: What It Means to be a U.S. Citizen

CLA faculty weigh in on citizenship in the 21st century.

U.S. Citizen

Scott Menchin

Observers across the political divide lament a lack of public participation in the American political process, most obvious in our perpetually low voter turnout.

At the same time, new technologies have opened up realms of civic engagement our forebears couldn't have imagined. Whether blogging for a cause, communing through MySpace, or signing on to a mass e-mail, the 21st century citizen can be active in a growing number of ways.

It raises the question: Is citizenship in the 21st century the same as it's always been? What does it mean to be a U.S. citizen today? Beyond voting, what are a good citizen's duties?

We had reporter Tim Brady comb the minds of CLA faculty who are studying civic responsibility in their three separate disciplines. Here's what they had to say:

Ronald Greene, Communication Studies

Ronald Greene believes that issues of civic responsibility should be viewed through a wide-angle lens.

“It's important to puncture the myth that if we just make better citizens, the world will be a better place. That assumes the responsibility for civic improvement rests solely with the individual." Green believes the institutions and structures of democracy are just as important.

It's important to create arenas where citizens feel comfortable in debate, he explains. “It's hard work getting together to solve civic problems. People are nervous communicating their political leanings in a public forum. Their feelings might be hurt; they may be proven wrong about an idea; they may be inclined to sublimate their expression by being ‘Minnesota nice.' But, says Greene, “Democracy works from the local level up."

Wendy Rahn, Political Science

Wendy Rahn argues that globalization itself is causing a decline in civic-mindedness around the world.

“The modern nation-state has less importance in the lives of individual citizens in a ‘globalized' world," she says. And that causes problems—“not just for commitments to conventional democratic virtues, such as being informed or voting in national elections," but also in terms of participation in “global citizenship."

In a recent study, Rahn examined groups of 14-year olds in 28 nations around the world. She discovered that the more “globalized" the subjects were, the less likely they were to be civically involved in their own nations. Yet, she found no evidence of greater involvement in newer, more globally oriented forms of civic-mindedness, such as concern for the environment.

Thomas Augst, English

Thomas Augst says the United States is simply still working out the kinks in its civic structure. Our democracy is a work-in-progress, he says, and current issues of civic engagement should be viewed in the context of their origins.

For instance, he explains, “The classical statesman-citizen figures of the founding era were working within much more limited parameters than we are today." Not only was the young country a fraction of its current size, but at the time, full citizenship was exclusive to white men of a certain economic status. Presumably, political dialogue isn't as difficult when citizens are so alike.

“One of the great challenges of civic engagement is finding a way to extend the classical ideals of democracy to a large and diverse populace," says Augst. And that, he adds, is one of the roles of higher education.

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This page contains a single entry by CLA Reach Magazine published on June 24, 2008 4:26 PM.

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