I recently had the opportunity to attend a fabulous lecture at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s estate in Virginia. The subject matter being Leadership, Citizenship and Civic Education. This lecture series explores the Father of Our Country’s lifelong accomplishments, providing a better understanding of him as a man, as well as his remarkable leadership, professional achievements and lasting legacy.
What do we think of when we think of citizenship? What is citizenship about? How does it relate to the founding of America and equality in civic education, morality and public policy? You are a citizen of a country by birth or by choice. Allow me to share an example of a citizen: I am a citizen of the United States by having been born in the State of New York. Someone that is a citizen by choice is a person(s) that come to the United States from other countries (for work, as a result of war, famine or other) or a person that marries a United States citizen.
Citizenship is the status of a person recognized under the custom or law of a state that bestows on that person the rights and the duties of citizenship. That may include the right to vote, work and live in the country, the right to return to the country, the right to own real estate, legal protections against the country’s government, and protection through the military or diplomacy. A citizen may also be subject to certain duties, such as a duty to follow the country’s law, to pay taxes, or to serve in the military. A person may have multiple citizenships and a person who does not have citizenship of any state is said to be stateless. Although the term is sometimes understood as denoting a person’s membership of a nation. In some countries, nationality and citizenship can have different meanings.
A person can be a citizen for several reasons. Usually citizenship of the place of birth is automatic; in other cases an application may be required.
(1) Parents are citizens – If one or both of a person’s parents are citizens of a given state, then the person may have the right to be a citizen of that state as well. Formerly this might only have applied through the paternal line, but sex equality became common since the late twentieth century. Citizenship is granted based on ancestry or ethnicity, and is related to the concept of a nation state common in China. A person born outside a country, one or both of whose parents are citizens of the country, is also a citizen. States normally limit the right to citizenship by descent to a certain number of generations born outside the state. This form of citizenship is not common in civil law countries.
(2) Born within a country – Most people are automatically citizens of the state in which they are born. This form of citizenship originated in England where those who were born within the realm were subjects of the monarch (a concept pre-dating citizenship), and is common in common law countries.
(3) Marriage to a citizen. – Many countries fast-track naturalization based on the marriage of a person to a citizen. Countries which are destinations for such immigration often have regulations to try to detect sham marriages, where a citizen marries a non-citizen typically for payment, without them having the intention of living as man and wife.
(4) Naturalization – States normally grant citizenship to people who have entered the country legally and been granted leave to stay, or been granted political asylum, and also lived there for a specified period. In some countries naturalization is subject to conditions which may include passing a test demonstrating reasonable knowledge of the language or way of life of the host country, good conduct (no serious criminal record), swearing allegiance to their new state or its ruler, and renouncing their prior citizenship. Some states allow dual citizenship and do not require naturalized citizens to renounce any other citizenship.
(5) Excluded categories – In the past there have been exclusions on entitlement to citizenship on grounds such as skin color, ethnicity, sex, and free status (not being a slave). Most of these exclusions no longer apply in most places. Slavery permitted slave-owners to have substantial free time, and enabled participation in public life. Citizenship meant having rights to have possessions, immunities, expectations, which were “available in many kinds and degrees, available or unavailable to many kinds of person for many kinds of reason”. And the law, itself, was a kind of bond uniting people. During the Renaissance, people transitioned from being subjects of a king or queen to being citizens of a city and later to a nation. Each city had its own law, courts, and independent administration. And being a citizen often meant being subject to the city’s law in addition to having power in some instances to help choose officials. The rise of citizenship was linked to the rise of republicanism, according to one account, since independent citizens meant that kings had less power. Citizenship became an idealized, almost abstract, concept, and did not signify a submissive relation with a lord or count, but rather indicated the bond between a person and the state in the rather abstract sense of having rights and duties.
The modern idea of citizenship still respects the idea of political participation, but it is usually done through “elaborate systems of political representation at a distance” such as representative democracy. Modern citizenship is much more passive; action is delegated to others; citizenship is often a constraint on acting, not an impetus to act. Nevertheless, citizens are usually aware of their obligations to authorities, and are aware that these bonds often limit what they can do.
Citizenship is a status in society. It is an ideal state as well. It generally describes a person with legal rights within a given political order. It almost always has an element of exclusion, meaning that some people are not citizens, and that this distinction can sometimes be very important, or not important, depending on a particular society. Scholars suggest that the concept of citizenship contains many unresolved issues, sometimes called tensions, existing within the relation, that continue to reflect uncertainty about what citizenship is supposed to mean. Citizenship is based on the extent that a person can control one’s own destiny within the group in the sense of being able to influence the government of the group. One last distinction within citizenship is the so-called consent descent distinction, and this issue addresses whether citizenship is a fundamental matter determined by a person choosing to belong to a particular nation––by his or her consent––or is citizenship a matter of where a person was born––that is, by his or her descent.
The United States has a federal system in which a person is a citizen of their specific state of residence, such as New Jersey or California, as well as a citizen of the United States. State constitutions may grant certain rights above and beyond what are granted under the United States Constitution and may impose their own obligations including the sovereign right of taxation and military service; each state maintains at least one military force subject to national militia transfer service, the state’s national guard, and some states maintain a second military force not subject to nationalization.
Active Citizenship is the philosophy that citizens should work towards the betterment of their community through economic participation, public, volunteer work, and other such efforts to improve life for all citizens.
But what about civic education? Civic Education in a democracy is education in self-government. Democratic self-government means that citizens are actively involved in their own governance; they do not just passively accept the dictums of others or acquiesce to the demands of others. If liberty and equality, as is thought by some, are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be attained when all persons alike share in the government to the utmost. In other words, the ideals of democracy are most completely realized when every member of the political community shares in its governance. Members of the political community are its citizens; hence citizenship in a democracy is membership in the body politic. Membership implies participation, but not participation for participation’s sake. Citizen participation in a democratic society must be based on informed, critical reflection, and on the understanding and acceptance of the rights and responsibilities that go with that membership.
The founders of the United States tried to reduce the burdens on citizens, because they observed that republics had generally collapsed for lack of civic virtue. However, they also created a structure that would demand more of citizens, and grant citizens more rights, than the empire from which they had declared independence. So virtually all of the founders advocated greater attention to civic education. Opposed to this idea of developing a national identity was Thomas Jefferson, who saw education as the means for safeguarding individual rights, especially against the intrusions of the state. Central to Jefferson’s democratic education were the “liberal arts.” These arts liberate men and women from the grip of both tyrants and demagogues and enable those liberated to rule themselves. Through his ward system of education, Jefferson proposed establishing free schools to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic, and from these schools those of intellectual ability, regardless of background or economic status.