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OPINION | DANA KELLEY: Obligations of freedom

by Dana Kelley | September 15, 2023 at 3:55 a.m.

In a simplistic sense, freedom and obligation sound like antonyms. To be obligated means bound to a course of action. To be free means not constrained by required courses of action.

But like most things in life, the real relationship between freedom and obligation is more complex--especially regarding our role as citizens.

What sounds like a contradiction is really common sense. Real freedom under public law is only achieved as long as we honor our obligations as citizens in our private behavior.

The problem is, freedom and rights get all the love in popular culture, media hype and political campaign promises. "Fighting for rights" is a proud banner everyone likes to wear. Linguistically, it suggests fortitude, courage, strength through the minimal act of supporting a cause.

In reality, freedom and rights always come with obligations and responsibilities. But few politicians want to stump as "Fighting for more duties on citizens," and even fewer voters are in a hurry to jump on that bandwagon.

The resulting situation, and problem, is that far too many Americans take freedom for granted. The common view is that freedom is what we're entitled to, rather than what we must continually, diligently and vigilantly earn and preserve.

The glorification of "rights" implies that securing a right is the equivalent of responsibly exercising a right in order to accomplish something. One need not look far to see how flawed that implication is.

The idea of giving all children the right to a free public education is highly championed and celebrated with fanfare. In reality, that right creates distinct obligations and responsibilities for children and their families. Those who fail to honor their duties will wind up not getting an education at all. Without the work, the right is lost.

In a tragic irony, it becomes the same as if they never had the right to begin with.

To adapt Mark Twain's quote, children and students who waste the opportunity to learn wind up with no advantage over children and students who were never given the opportunity.

As national test scores show, that means large segments of our population are being deprived of the right to an education--by themselves.

Large-scale, self-imposed social pathologies have sadly become a tolerated American norm, and at least part of the blame for that rests with a growing focus by academia, media and politicians on what's been wrong with America, without first acknowledging and teaching what's been right.

There would never have been a civil rights movement had there not first been a Bill of Rights, which wouldn't have come about without the Constitutional Convention, which never would have occurred had there not been a War for Independence, and that only happened in concert with the Declaration of Independence that asserted God-given rights above any human authority or government.

Trying to teach kids (or anyone, for that matter) about civil rights struggles without first establishing a thorough knowledge and strong understanding of all that came before only winds up misinforming them. Likewise, extolling various "battles" for rights but leaving out the required obligations misplaces praise and misguides expectations.

That might help explain why eight out of 10 Americans don't trust the government to do the right thing, which Pew Research Center reports is near historic lows. People who expect positive outcomes to flow automatically from laws that expand rights, instead of from their own efforts and responsibilities, will likely blame the government when things don't pan out like they thought.

The remedy for taking something for granted is more information and perspective. Nowhere is that more true than regarding our own Constitution, which we celebrate with this Sunday's holiday.

If the statistic I saw is true, federal education spending for STEM is now 1,000 times higher than for civics education. Only seven states require even one full year's study of civics instruction in high school.

Our people aren't getting a strong foundational education about America's charter documents and their responsibilities as citizens for one reason: There's no investment in teaching it to them.

Back before the National Education Association sold its soul as a special-interest lobby, it was a powerful proponent of citizenship. For nearly 30 years, the NEA published "The American Citizen's Handbook," a 400-page anthology of historical, documentary, literary and creative works explaining and exploring American ideals.

Great teachers don't mince words about hard truths, and the Handbook's "Code of the Good American" laid down 11 laws, all of which emphasized individual effort over entitlement: self-control, good health, kindness, sportsmanship, self-reliance, duty, reliability, truth, good workmanship, teamwork and loyalty.

Today's NEA won't resurrect that handbook, but luckily the out-of-print editions can be found everywhere. A 21st century relaunch by state education departments would not only put the book in the hands of high schoolers again, but also deliver its content digitally to their smartphones and tablets.

The impressive success of "Hamilton" might be a harbinger for just how ripe the time is for an engaging multimedia handbook version.

This much is certain: Kids who learn and internalize what's in that handbook will become much better citizens than those who don't.

Dana D. Kelley is a freelance writer from Jonesboro.

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