Citizenship comes with responsibilities as well as rights

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I was once asked, “What is the greatest lesson learned from your 23 years in politics?” My answer remains the same: The nation needs to reinstate a mandatory teaching of Civics in public schools. As American citizens we should know good citizenship comes with responsibilities, not just rights. We should also know how our form of government works, and what good citizens must know and do to make government work well.

House Republican Leader Mary Clark Webster was first to hire me as a Maine legislative staffer in 1989. And Maine Senate President Kevin Raye was last to hire me as his communications director in 2010 — a job ending in 2012.

Within those 23 years I was immersed in how government works, how laws are either made, changed, or repealed. Because I was tasked to write for elected officials about issues from cat licensing, to car insurance, to taxes, to alewives, to electric utility rates, to education, etc. — I had to study and learn about every issue imaginable. And, as I’ve said before, working for several legislators often meant studying ideas and issues until I could write convincingly about them either for or against.

From 1989 to 2012 I also worked on local, state, and federal campaigns. I wrote a monthly political magazine column, and political op-ed’s for daily and weekly newspapers. I was a guest political talking head on tv and radio shows, and for a time I produced and hosted a political talk show on WVOM. Finally, I was a pioneer in using the internet to connect people interested in political issues.

As late as the early 1990s I knew zip about Civics. Never even heard of it. But, working for the Maine Legislature I did have daily one-hour lunch breaks, and I mostly used that time to catch short power naps in my car, and then often frequent places where I could buy good/cheap music and/or books.

One day, snaking my way through the maze of bookshelves and book piles in my favorite Hallowell used bookstore, I found and bought, My Country: A Textbook in Civics and Patriotism for Young Americans, by Grace A. Turkington, a small olive green hardcover school book. The inside front cover has a rubber stamped impression in all capital letters: CITY OF AUGUSTA MAINE PUBLIC SCHOOLS. JUL 21 1925. The book frontispiece is a four-color detail from an N. C. Wyeth painting showing students saluting a waving American flag, with the Statue of Liberty in the background.

In the book preface I underscored this paragraph:

“The simple tasks of citizenship — taking an earnest part in home duties, helping the unfortunate of one’s neighborhood, earning one’s living, voting intelligently — are such seemingly commonplace acts that many persons believe it makes little difference how well or ill they do them. This spirit of indifference is that nation’s greatest danger, for a nation succeeds or fails not on the battlefields but in the preceding and succeeding years, in the homes, schools, and places of work.”

The more I studied My Country, and a 1935 junior high textbook, Civics Through Problems, — especially on citizenship and good government — I felt sad America has pretty much stopped teaching Civics. Working in the Maine Legislature I would see firsthand the growing damage when citizens ignorant of how government works elect other such ignorant citizens, to represent them in government, making laws governing all aspects of our lives.

Truly, this is the blind leading the blind. Teaching students Civics, without political spin, is key to preventing the nation from walking right off a cliff.

Scott K. Fish has served as a communications staffer for Maine Senate and House Republican caucuses, and was communications director for Senate President Kevin Raye. He founded and edited and served as director of communications/public relations for Maine’s Department of Corrections until 2015. He is now using his communications skills to serve clients in the private sector.

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