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Turning a Nation of Spectators Into Doers

America: We must reengage in self-government, individually and as communities, to revitalize and strengthen our society.

July 03, 1998|WILLIAM J. BENNETT and SAM NUNN | William J. Bennett and Sam Nunn are co-chairmen of the National Commission on Civic Renewal

Most Americans are troubled about our country's civic and moral condition. During the past generation, many of our families have crumbled. Neighborhood and community ties have frayed. Many of our streets and public spaces have become unsafe. Our public schools are mediocre for many students and catastrophic failures for many others. Our character-forming institutions are enfeebled. Much of our popular culture is vulgar, violent and mindless.

Political participation is at depressed levels last seen in the 1920s. Today, less than 40% of the public express confidence in government.

Blaming others often seems like an American pastime. But much of what has gone wrong in America we have done to ourselves. In a time that calls for active citizenship, we are in danger of becoming a nation of spectators.

We fret about the weakness of our families but will not make the personal commitments needed to preserve and strengthen them. We worry about out-of-wedlock births, but refuse to condemn them. We deplore the performance of our schools, but can't find time to attend parent-teacher conferences or help our children with their homework. We complain about the influence of popular culture on our children, but don't monitor the TV programs they watch or the music they hear. We say we don't have the time for civic work, but we spend more and more time watching television.

Yes, we need honest, honorable leaders to help renew our civic health. But we need self-government and citizenship as well.

Millions of Americans agree. Throughout the nation, there are stirrings of a new movement of citizens solving community problems. Young people are volunteering more. Faith-based institutions are taking on the toughest challenges, from family break-up to drug abuse. Local media are finding new ways to fulfill their civic responsibility. Neighborhoods are organizing to bring back businesses and to engage their youth. New organizations are focusing on the formation of civic character.

The report of the bipartisan National Commission on Civic Renewal, which we co-chair, highlights these promising efforts. The commission also recommends some simple, but important, steps that all Americans can take to build on them.

First, we must recognize that our civic condition cannot be strong if our families remain weak. Families are the critical place for models of behavior and character, connecting children and adults to their communities.

Strengthening families will take a commitment to the proposition that every child should be raised in a two-parent family whenever possible and by one caring and competent adult at the very least. In part, this means supporting organizations that are working to reduce teen pregnancy and out-of-wedlock births and to reconnect absent fathers with their families; reforming foster care and establishing a national norm that no child should spend more than one birthday without a permanent home in a stable, loving family; and providing adult mentors for the 1 million young people languishing on various waiting lists.

Equal educational opportunity is a civic imperative. We must improve elementary and secondary education by raising academic standards and getting serious about programs to strengthen the participation of young people in the life of their schools. We should develop a voluntary national testing system and aim to increase parental involvement in selecting schools.

We can support charitable and community-building efforts of faith-based associations without violating constitutional limits by revising the tax code to increase incentives for charitable giving and forging partnerships with faith-based and other groups to provide social services.

Each of us should become an active member of at least one association dealing with matters of neighborhood, church, school or community concern. We can join neighborhood crime watches, help patrol and repair local parks, participate in Bible study circles or mentor young schoolchildren who need special attention.

Finally, citizens must hold the news and entertainment media accountable for their effects on our civic life. A free people should work hard to protect not only its natural but also its moral ecology. We need community news compacts so that each local television station can pledge to increase and upgrade its civic coverage without fear of losing ratings points to its competitors. We also need an updated set of voluntary standards for the entertainment industry, to reassure the public that the mass media will observe some limits in their quest for profit.

While there is no one blueprint for civic renewal, there is a sure-fire recipe for failure: shirking the responsibilities and requirements of self-government. Through hard work, community involvement and, above all, by taking care of our families, we can renew self-government and the virtues on which democracy ultimately depends.

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