Societies have long had an interest in the ways in which their young are prepared for citizenship and in how they learn to take part in civic life. Today that interest might better be described as a concern-in fact as a growing concern, particularly in democratic societies. There is evidence aplenty that no country, including our own United States, has achieved the level of understanding and acceptance of the rights and responsibilities among the totality of its citizens that is required for the maintenance and improvement of any constitutional democracy.
In the past decade we have witnessed dramatic demands for freedom on the part of peoples from Asia to Africa and from Central and Eastern Europe to Latin America. And as we have seen one totalitarian or authoritarian regime after another toppled and fledgling democratic governments replace them, we may have become too optimistic about the future of democracy. We also may have become too complacent, too sure of democracy's robustness or of its long term viability. History, however, teaches us that few countries have sustained democratic governments for prolonged periods, a lesson which we as Americans are sometimes inclined to forget. Americans, of course, should take pride and confidence from the fact that they live in the world's oldest constitutional democracy and that the philosophical foundations underlying their political institutions serve as a model for aspiring peoples around the world. The "shot heard 'round the world" two centuries ago at the opening of the American Revolution continues to resound today, and it should remind Americans that free institutions are among humanity's highest achievements and worthy of their full energies and earnest devotion to preserve.
Americans also should realize that civic education is essential to sustain our constitutional democracy. The habits of the mind, as well as "habits of the heart," the dispositions that inform the democratic ethos, are not inherited. As Alexis de Toqueville pointed out, each new generation is a new people that must acquire the knowledge, learn the skills, and develop the dispositions or traits of private and public character that undergird a constitutional democracy. Those dispositions must be fostered and nurtured by word and study and by the power of example. Democracy is not a "machine that would go of itself," but must be consciously reproduced, one generation after another.
Civic education, therefore, is-or should be-a prime concern. There is no more important task than the development of an informed, effective, and responsible citizenry. Democracies are sustained by citizens who have the requisite knowledge, skills, and dispositions. Absent a reasoned commitment on the part of its citizens to the fundamental values and principles of democracy, a free and open society cannot succeed. It is imperative, therefore, that educators, policymakers, and members of civil society make the case and ask for the support of civic education from all segments of society and from the widest range of institutions and governments.