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What Makes a Citizen?

Nancy Cain Marcus sat down with Amanda Schnetzer to discuss her initiatives responding to the challenges and responsibilities of citizenship in our time.

Article by Amanda Schnetzer January 11, 2019 //   8 minute read
Photo credit: Shutterstock

Nancy Cain Marcus, humanitarian and scholar of the classics, serves on the George W. Bush Institute’s Human Freedom Advisory Council. She contributed to the development of the Institute’s work on the state of democracy at home and in the world. Nancy sat down with Amanda Schnetzer, an Institute fellow, to talk about these efforts and her own initiatives responding to the challenges and responsibilities of citizenship in our time. 

Amanda Schnetzer: What do you cherish about the great democratic experiment that is the United States? 

Nancy Cain Marcus: What I cherish most about the great democratic experiment is its daring, first, to imagine that it might be possible for us human beings to conceive of a ‘more perfect union.’ And second, to dare a protracted and determined effort to realize that conception, this better, more enlightened political regime. So, as the Founders conceived and composed what would eventually result in the U.S. Constitution, what they seemed to see and to provide for in the language of the founding documents was the understanding that human beings, while flawed, are capable of great nobility. 

Think of our first president, George Washington, whose character and virtue were so truly great that he exists not only in the facts of history but also in our mythological imaginations, where our saints and heroes reside. When George Washington proclaimed the first national day of Thanksgiving in 1789, he expressed the gratitude of Americans for “the opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.” What a concept! Government, essentially, by the people and for the people—all of them. 

AS: You helped shape the Bush Institute’s work to look practically and optimistically at the challenges democracy faces here at home and around the world. What challenges concern you? 

 NCM: I have cherished my role on the George W. Bush Institute’s Human Freedom Advisory Council, and especially working on the part of its mission to reaffirm the American core value of political freedom by making available to our fellow human beings, around the world, an understanding of the immense blessing of democracy. We’re well aware that this is a complicated business, and we understand that, by definition, democracy cannot be imposed. But making the world aware of our political model and how it works is something that we, the most powerful nation in the world, have a moral duty to do.

Here at home, I think we’ve all been surprised to realize that a democratic regime in our own nation is not assured. We have been forced to remember that there are other forms of government lurking, others not dedicated to “peaceably govern[ing] . . . for the . . . safety and happiness” of their people. What we’ve had to remember is that while we’ve inherited this remarkable legacy in which the greatest number of people ever in human history have the gift of freedom and the greatest possibility of prosperity, still, in order for a democracy to thrive, this living political regime requires the robust participation of decent and informed citizens.  

AS: Through the Dallas Institute of Humanities, you helped to create a course on political philosophy for teachers. Why political philosophy, and why now? 

NCM: Like most Americans, I’m deeply concerned about the sharp divide among us citizens in our cherished nation, which I think most of us have recognized as a real crisis in our democracy. Also like many citizens, I’ve longed to do what I can to help, to take some action. So, I met with Jonathan Culp, a political philosophy scholar, and introduced him to Larry Allums and Claudia McMillan at the Dallas Institute. I wanted to revive the idea of a course the Institute had tried back in 2001-2002, when I was at the UN serving in the Bush Administration. The course would be in political philosophy, and would bring foundational texts and documents of our Western civilization to full-time teachers—at no cost—for twelve hours of graduate credit. We were shocked by the immediate response: within minutes of offering the course on our website, many teachers signed up. Within no time, this first class was filled to capacity. The curriculum began with Plutarch and Thucydides, followed with Xenophon, Aristotle, Aquinas and Augustine, the last days finding us grappling with Augustine’s magnum opus, The City of God.

Why Political Philosophy? Because the viability of a democracy depends on the virtue and intelligence of its citizens. Because the American people need and deserve to know the mechanisms of our government, how it works. And obviously, because a deeper understanding of how our democratic institutions came about, and the struggles, lessons and triumphs within that history is our legacy; it belongs to us. And it’s priceless. 

AS: You recently produced a multimedia program on the meaning of citizenship. What does make a citizen? Why is this important to impart to young people today?

NCM:  In addition to the graduate course in political philosophy for teachers, I wanted to offer something to a diverse and public audience, something that would underscore what all of us Americans hold in common. I easily decided on a lecture on the U.S. Constitution.

Having met the legal scholar and George Washington University Professor Jeffrey Rosen through the Bush Institute, I approached the Dallas Institute about commissioning Rosen to come to Dallas to lecture. To make a long story short, Professor Rosen, who teaches constitutional law and serves as the President and CEO of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, agreed to lecture on the 14th Amendment. Then, we added a twist: we persuaded Rosen to allow us to place his lecture within an artistic, theatrical, musical context—and he bravely agreed to this experiment. When the time came, Rosen appeared in a presentation in which playwright Will Power directed a performance that included the Dallas youth theater group Cry Havoc, DJ Reborn of Brooklyn and others. It was produced by SMU’s Clyde Valentin of Ignite Arts, and also Sharon Lyle. The bottom line is that no one in the 600 plus audience of citizens and students left without a clearer understanding of the Fourteenth Amendment, which was our objective. We’re now talking about taking the next iteration of What Makes a Citizen on the road.      

What does make a citizen? Obviously legal status confers citizenship, but the same integrity that forms the good husband, wife, friend or statesman forms the good citizen. And those citizens must not only be virtuous but also competent, which requires their education. So back to the quintessentially good citizen, our first President, George Washington, whose virtue is renowned. It’s because the people trusted his character and intelligence that they were willing to follow this leader at our nation’s beginning. Now, in this populist moment of our nation’s history, we the people must muster the will to imitate the fine, self-sacrificing character of George Washington and that of later presidents, conspicuously including President George H.W. Bush and President George W. Bush, if we are to sustain the inestimable gift we’ve been given, that of our citizenship in the United States of America.

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