02/27/2013 03:51 pm ET Updated Apr 29, 2013

Citizens of the Republic

This week we are reminded again that the job of citizen is the most important responsibility in our republic. On February 27, the newly-installed statue of civil rights activist Rosa Parks in the United States Capitol Statuary Hall was unveiled. Parks's story -- her personal commitment to the struggle for civil rights -- reminds us of every individual (celebrated or not) who by words and deeds called on fellow citizens across the nation to join together and insist on equality for African Americans. It is important that we remember the civic engagement of Rosa Parks, her colleagues, and those she inspired: their actions changed the nation forever.

In 1864, Congress authorized each state to provide statues of two individuals who were "illustrious for their historic renown or for distinguished civic or military services." The collection was installed in "the Old Hall of the House of Representatives," which was renamed the National Statuary Hall. You might expect the National Statuary Hall Collection to include mostly generals and politicians, but the diversity of the collection is remarkable. The statues represent men and women -- citizens just like us -- who engaged the issues of their time to shape the future of our republic.

The collection includes Helen Keller of Alabama who inspired us all by meeting the challenges of deafness and blindness, and then becoming an advocate for women's suffrage, labor rights, and other causes. Uriah Rose, an Arkansas lawyer, was "A man of learning in the law, science, and literature." Florence Sabin of Colorado was the first woman to hold a full professorship at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, the first woman elected to the National Academy of Sciences, and the first female department head at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. Jack Swigert of Colorado was the command-module pilot on the ill-fated Apollo 13 moon mission. Georgia's Crawford Long was the surgeon and pharmacist who first used ether as an anesthesia. Father Damien ministered to lepers quarantined on the island of Molokai, Hawaii. Frances Willard of Illinois was an educator, temperance advocate, and suffragist. The American educator Maria Sanford represents Minnesota, and the painter of the American West, Charles M. Russell, represents Montana. Nevada's Sarah Winnemucca was a prominent advocate for Native American rights. Humorist Will Rogers represents Oklahoma. The inventor and television pioneer Philo Farnsworth and Brigham Young, the second president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, are Utah's contributions to Statuary Hall.

This eclectic collection reminds us that citizens are at work in every nook and cranny of the republic. They are not just in the halls of legislatures, executive offices, judges' chambers, or serving in our military. Every citizen -- by their actions and their interactions with other citizens -- shapes the community, the state, and the nation in which they live. And the people represented in the Statuary Hall Collection are also a reminder that much of the work of citizens is challenging and contentious.

The National Statuary Hall Collection includes John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, Daniel Webster of New Hampshire, and Henry Clay of Kentucky -- the statesmen who shaped the Missouri Compromise on slavery. The collection also includes Jefferson Davis, who served in the United States Congress as a Mississippi representative, later senator, and as the secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce before becoming president of the Confederate States of America. Statues of generals, both Union and Confederate, such as New Jersey's Philip Kearny and South Carolina's Wade Hampton, remind us that the work of citizens can stress our American institutions until we find ourselves grasping at frayed strands as the fabric of the republic seems to dissolve in our hands. And at the same time, these statues remind us that we all -- each American citizen -- hold our American ideals in sacred trust, each of us struggling to create our collective future, the future of the republic.

These statues, these individuals, these stories show the power of engaged citizens to shape their communities, their society, their nation, and their world. Their commitment to core American ideals shaped the conflicts as well as the path forward together. These are the stories our students must understand, not by rote but with a comprehension gained through in-depth critical analysis and discussion. Be an advocate for American history and civics education in your community. There is nothing more important. These are the lessons that create engaged American citizens, the single most important objective of education in this republic. To deny these stories to our children imperils us all.