Recently a teenager told me that he wanted to skip college and work as a journeyman electrician. His reason: “I just want to live my life and not have to answer to anyone.”
I get it.
But at some point he’ll realize, as Bob Dylan put it, that “You gotta serve somebody.”
Or maybe he’ll see it more like Bill Withers: “We all need somebody to lean on.”
400 years ago John Donne said it best in a poem (from which Ernest Hemingway borrowed a line for a book title): “No man is an island.”
We don’t operate well in isolation – examples abound, from the cruelty of solitary confinement to the loneliness fallout from the pandemic. We depend on each other for everything, from goods and services to relationships and positive self-regard.
Our connections and feelings of affection and belongings are no small matter. We are social animals. That’s why the older, fight and flight parts of our brains are not nearly as well-developed as the thinking, responding, executive functioning frontal cortex that enables us to do things like empathize, reason with each other, and occasionally collaborate on projects or even resolving our differences..
So, civilization may be on the verge of collapse, but that’s no reason to be rude or give up on each other. More than ever, we need to learn how to operate in systems: families, communities, schools, organizations, teams. Countries. Earth.* (*No joke on that last one. Seen the weather reports lately? Are you composting yet?)
The word civic originally comes from the Latin corona civica, a crown of oak leaves awarded to one who saved the life of a fellow citizen in battle.
It may be useful to think of civics in the context of fellowship in the face of adversity. Even if we’re not fighting an actual battle against a common enemy in a war, we need to identify anything that may divide us and pit us against one another.
Here are some civic issues I see that create conflict between coworkers, friends, and even family members:
You don’t have to agree with everyone you know, but you do have to understand their reasoning, and you have to make the commitment to stay in connection with them – if you are going to maintain the strength of the relationship and the system you’re in.
Civil liberties are freedoms and guarantees that governments commit not to abridge (i.e., limit or mess with in any other way, such as making laws, or interpreting right and wrong, etc. etc.).
One commonly cited example is the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights consists of the first ten amendments to the Constitution of the United States of America. In my experience, it’s important to spell this out in precise language, since most Americans seem very comfortable slinging pieces of these phrases without having any real idea what they’re talking about.
For example, many people mistakenly assume that the First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech. It does no such thing. Here is what is says:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Read that again. The First Amendment says nothing about what you are free or not free to express. It only says that Congress is not allowed to make a law limiting freedom of religion, speech, the press, or our right to assemble.
Clearly, we don’t have unlimited freedom. We can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater or cause immediate or irreparable harm to the nation or its people; we can’t engage in obscenity that serves no artistic, democratic, or scientific purpose; minors on campuses where educators are charged with the responsibility of acting in loco parentis routinely run into challenges. The list goes on.
We don’t necessarily have to agree on everything, but we do have to negotiate understandings that support our coexistence and interdependence. The first step is becoming knowledgeable about the issues.
Civic Fitness is the third of Open-Source Learning’s Five Fitnesses. Unlike Mental Fitness and Physical Fitness, which begin as purely individual, everyday practices, Civic Fitness is something we consciously and intentionally practice in full view of other people.
On the one hand, this is nothing new. When Plato wrote The Republic nearly 2500 years ago, he included a section in which Socrates describes the qualities that a citizen must have in order to function effectively.
More recently, Nelson Mandela famously observed that, “The time has come to accept in our hearts and minds that freedom comes with responsibility.”
Schools don’t teach Civic Fitness the way I’m describing it here. What does it mean to be of sound mind and body? And further, when did we forget that reading and math are necessary, foundational skills for voting on public policy, entering into contracts, and managing our financial resources so as to be an interdependent participant in shared value, rather than a burden on society or a predator?
We can demonstrate Civic Fitness through acts as as simple as picking up litter in a neighbor’s yard. Volunteering. Voting. Making sure we have enough money to cover our payments. Understanding our system of government and our economy well enough to contribute good ideas and make good choices.
The One Thing We Can’t Do
We can no longer afford to act like we don’t need each other, or like we don’t owe each other our best.
At some point, that teenager who told me he doesn’t want to answer to anyone may very well become a journeyman electrician. But he will fail if no one hires him. So he will need customers and clients. And it’s highly likely that some homeowner or general contractor will frustrate him at some point.
He will also need friendship and love. His relationships will challenge him too.
He should be so lucky.