When it comes to the question of good citizenship, plenty of American leaders and laypeople have offered their interpretation. Eleanor Roosevelt, when she was first lady, offered this definition: "A nation must have leaders, men who have the power to see a little farther, to imagine a little better life than the present. But if this vision is to be fulfilled, it must also have a vast army of men and women capable of understanding and following these leaders intelligently." That army can accomplish its goal by taking up several important practices.
Participate in the civic process by registering to vote and casting your ballot. Accept a summons for jury duty and actually serve, and participate in public demonstrations that question the authority of the government and its leaders. While questioning the government may seem to be the opposite of good citizenship, it's actually an important part of the process in a representative democracy, helping the nation learn from mistakes and improve upon them. Speaking out against the government is so important that it's protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Good citizens recognize where help is needed, and provide that help, especially in your local community. Help a senior neighbor carry her groceries, plan a neighborhood block party or volunteer at a local school. Larger projects can include organizing a citywide or statewide effort to reduce homelessness or improve the health outcomes of the local senior citizen population. Good citizens also find ways to engage groups or individuals from diverse groups, suggests Tufts University professor David Levine. He suggests people should work to bring together people from various walks of life, collaborate on ideas and projects with those diverse populations to help build "civic relationships" characterized by "loyalty, trust, and hope."
Respect for the Law
Respect the law and other people's property. That includes being good neighbors and helping to keep your own property -- and that of their neighbors -- in good working condition. Responsible citizens might question certain laws or government practices, but they'll tend to use legal means to change laws that they see as unfair or discriminatory. Good citizenship also includes paying taxes, which help to run the government programs that all citizens can access.
The notion of "good citizenship" has lots of other definitions. The Center for Law and Democracy lists many other, less-obvious elements of good citizenship, including appreciation and respect for the environment, being familiar with the country's history and cultures, and standing up for the rights of other people. Other ideas from the center include loving your country and serving in its armed or civilian forces, campaigning for political candidates, working for social change and participating in political demonstrations and signing petitions.
- George Washington University: The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project: Good Citizenship: The Purpose of Education
- Education for Freedom: The First Amendment Explained
- WAMC Northeast Public Radio: Dr. Peter Levine, Tufts University – What Makes a Good Citizen
- Center for Education in Law and Democracy: What Do Good Citizens Do?
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