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The Responsibilities of Citizenship: A Bundle of Literacies

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There are many issues confronting American democracy that can make us uneasy about its health in future years. These include the undue influence of campaign contributions on legislation, the drawing of legislative districts to produce safe districts for representatives, questionable practices in State voting processes, lack of serious media coverage of elections below the presidency, and with the exception of this extraordinary presidential election, voter apathy.

There will need to be electoral and democratic reforms in the years ahead in virtually every one of the areas above. But the key to promoting the health of American democracy will ultimately fall to one bottom-up factor: an informed and engaged citizenry.

Media magnate, diplomat and philanthropist Walter Annenberg once said, "Citizenship is every person's highest calling." It is our highest calling because only through the active exercise of our rights and responsibilities of citizenship will Americans, as citizen-sovereigns, collectively solve the crises facing us.

Americans are very good at claiming rights; we are not always so ready to recognize our responsibilities. Our rights of citizenship include the right to vote, to be protected by the rights of the American Constitution, and to be treated equally in the law. But what are our responsibilities as citizens?

Democracy means citizen sovereignty. To be sovereign each citizen should have a responsibility, among other things, to be informed, at least minimally, of the issues on which he or she is asked to make a decision - whether for candidates, ballot propositions, or local civic questions. We should have a right to be informed, but also a responsibility to become informed.

In the law of intellectual property, a copyright is actually a bundle of rights, for example, the rights to publish, display, reproduce, and create sequels to an original work of authorship. I would analogize this to the concept of citizenship: a significant responsibility of citizenship is that of literacy, by which I mean a bundle of literacies.

This begins with the skill to read or understand the basic information on which to base a vote. Of course, we have long ago rid ourselves of literacy requirements to vote. They were a pretext to deny votes to freed slaves and their descendants. One can learn orally and visually, certainly a favorite of politicians who can afford to buy broadcast advertisements. But citizens should aim to go beyond such media messages by reading about the issues online or in print.

Literacy today is not simply learning to read. There are additional literacies -- abilities to understand and operate -- in 21st century America. First there is media literacy or digital literacy, the ability to comprehend and communicate in the electronic media. Certainly we want our young to understand the process by which they receive messages on television or online. The more we are able to comprehend, analyze, and communicate upstream, the less there will be pressure to censor. More importantly, however, is the utility of these skills to the exercise of the basic functions of citizenship: informed voting and civic engagement.

Beyond the technical literacies are two crucial literacies in a democracy: civic and news literacies. By this I mean understanding the basic tenets and concepts of our democratic system (civic literacy) and the ability to integrate news of the day into those constructs (news literacy). As our media trend toward more partisan outlets and more editorial voices, all of which are fine, we need to differentiate fact from opinion on our own, to be critical receptors of those messages.

Today, we see why two more, financial and environmental literacies, have moved from the purview of the wealthy, educated and curious to the responsibility of every citizen. The blame for our financial crisis can extend very broadly, and I would point first to the Wall Streeters who created credit default swaps and derivative securities based on faulty credit ratings. But the common mortgagees who secured loans beyond their means, and those of us who have run up avoidable credit card debt cannot escape blame. Frankly, many lack the financial literacy to understand the consequences of their actions in this sphere. Today, micro-lenders in Third World countries attach financial literacy to their micro-loans. The repayment rate for GrameenBank in Bangladesh is over 95%. We in the US should be a lot more attentive to financial literacy ourselves.

Finally, our contributions to global climate change and energy dependence on fossil fuels are clear. Each of us, as citizens of the planet, now has a responsibility to learn what we can about our inter-relationship with the environment. We need to become more environmentally literate.

The list can and probably should go on. Cultural literacy is next on my list, but others will have other priorities. The point is that we need to look at these as part of a bundle of literacies that are our responsibilities as citizens. If we want to preserve a healthy democracy and society for future generations, we need to instill these literacies in our young as they assume the mantle of their highest calling, citizenship.