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Civics letter

06/08/07 12:00AM By Vic Henningsen
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[HOST] What does a teacher say to his students after a year together? Here's commentator Vic Henningsen's letter to his eleventh-grade American history class.

(HENNINGSEN) Let's begin with a story.

As the delegates to the Constitutional Convention left Independence Hall for the last time, a woman stopped Benjamin Franklin and asked, "Well Doctor, do we have a monarchy or a republic?" Franklin replied: "Madam, you have a republic - if you can keep it."

At the back of the line, someone overheard George Washington remark, "This thing won't last twenty years."

Together we've learned how millions of Americans proved Washington wrong and Franklin right. They "kept the republic" - not always easily, often at great cost, not always in ways that served everyone equally.

But they did it. They did it through the difficulties of defining a new nation; through divisions over slavery that led to civil war; through economic convulsions that created both opportunity and catastrophe; through the emergence of the U.S. as a world power; through years of Cold War abroad and social revolution at home; down to defining a new role for the nation in the 21st century. They're still doing it.

It's time to join them. Remember the questions we've asked. What does it mean to be a democracy? How does a democratic society address tensions between majority rule and minority rights? How do the governed define their rights in relation to the powers of government? When we think of economic democracy, do we mean equality of opportunity or equality of condition or result? When we consider social democracy, we must ask who was welcome in the American family; who got excluded and why; did that change over time; and does a place at the table guarantee a full meal?

These questions guided you as students and they'll guide you as citizens.

We analyzed documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address. You cried: "We fell short of these ideals" and you debated the contradictions between ideal and reality. But you did note that one of the interesting things about those documents was their authors' willingness to articulate those ideals despite the nation's limitations in meeting them.

Continue those discussions. Don't be cynical - although a superficial reading of history can certainly induce cynicism. Understand that the lot of a citizen in a democracy is knowing that living up to our ideals is an unfinished task and likely to remain so. It's still a worthy one.

It's your turn to keep the republic. Not to celebrate what was or what is - although there's much to celebrate - but to help achieve what the nation could be, should be. That, the philosopher Camus reminds us, is the highest form of patriotism. It's also the most demanding and the most dangerous form of patriotism, for it requires not unquestioning loyalty but thoughtful, informed criticism. Such criticism isn't always welcome, but it's always necessary.

Last September I asked you: When did the American Revolution end? Today you know the answer: It hasn't. And you're part of it.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.

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