Citizen participation is as vital to democracy today as it was at the dawn of our nation, says Colonial Williamsburg Foundation President Colin Campbell.
Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! This is Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is “Behind the Scenes,” and we have talked to Colin Campbell, President and Chairman of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, before about Education for Citizenship. Colin, let’s continue that. What do you think -- nowadays, 21st century -- people understand about citizenship?
Colin Campbell: I don’t think they understand nearly as much as they ought to. I think what people are very familiar with is their rights. I think they’re less aware of the responsibilities of citizenship that are essential in order to protect the rights. That, I think, is at the heart of our concern, because citizen participation is the objective of our Education for Citizenship initiative. It’s the objective because we don’t believe a functioning democracy can work effectively without people playing a role. The reason we’re concerned about it is because people do not see the responsibilities in the same light as they see the rights. So, that’s really a critical issue, I think, going forward. Look at voting – just one example.
Lloyd: I remember reading in a newspaper once, a man objected greatly to putting up new stop signs on his street because they interfered with his right to drive. And I was thinking, where did you get that right?
Lloyd: Where’d it come from? I guess that’s the rights and responsibilities: you have a responsibility to drive safely and you have no right without that responsibility.
Colin: Yes, and the government has the right to put up stop signs in order that people will be protected from being run over in crossways where there are cars coming from different directions. I mean, I think the responsibilities thing is very important.
Lloyd: Again, back to the Greek – the one thing that I remember about Greek democracy and citizenship was you were required to do certain things in return for your citizenship.
Lloyd: You were required to vote. If they didn’t have a standing army, you were required to be part of the volunteer army when that came up. So I guess from that point of view, it’s been the same for a very long time now. But we seem to have gotten away from the responsibilities.
Colin: Well, I think that’s right, we have gotten away from it. I think that’s a real problem for the long-term success of our democratic experience. From my perspective, if people don’t take responsibility for what’s happening in their government, in their community, in their country, then those who decide that they want to control it, will. And you are at risk. And your rights are at risk. That’s what I think is the great danger over the long haul.
Lloyd: I interviewed the governor before he took his oath of office, and he was concerned about the low turnout at the polls, whether he won or not.
Colin: He should have been.
Lloyd: That it was just terrible that so few people had voted for him, or against him.
Lloyd: He didn’t care much which, I don’t think.
Colin: (Chuckles.) Well, I’m not sure about that.
Lloyd: Well, he probably did. But the lack of participation clearly troubled him.
Colin: Well, you know, in this last election in November, the turnout of the group from 18 to 30 went from 20% to 24% and you heard big “huzzahs,” this is a great success. Can you imagine only 24% of eligible voters between the ages of 18 and 30, who are voting on their future, voted? I think it’s just terrible, and I think that’s why we’re doing Education for Citizenship.
Lloyd: Well, perhaps that’s why you should do Education for Citizenship.
Colin: That’s why we should, exactly.
Lloyd: I’m going to ask you to look ahead a long way. If Education for Citizenship is successful, what do you think you will have taught people?
Colin: We would have taught people that citizen participation was essential to the nation being formed. There was an enormous amount of engagement in the 18th century on the Duke of Gloucester Street by people, not just the people whose names you and I know, but by all people. They were really engaged in this, all the time. They were prepared to make choices. The only way they could make choices was by being engaged, and so, they did that. I think that is what we need to establish in people’s minds, going forward: that you need to be engaged, and you need to make choices. And they aren’t always going to be easy. But the alternative is to lose what you have. It is to change the nature of the polity.
Lloyd: I like to think of things from the devil’s advocate point of view. You now have a married couple with two kids. They both work because that’s what it takes now to have a home. And the question is, when do I find time to be engaged in civic events, or civic affairs, whatever you want to call it. What’s the answer?
Colin: It’s a matter of priorities. You have to always deal with that question with your own family. How much time for the children? How much for work? How much time for yourself? Well, just add that to the list. I think, given the nature of our system, you have to find that time. How much will be [found] will vary for different people. I understand that. We have the same question about that family you described and how do they find time to go to Colonial Williamsburg. But I think that they should, and I think they should find a way to pay attention to their civic life as well.
Lloyd: Have you talked to anybody about that, I mean other than in a group here, have you ever gone out on the street and just talked to people?
Colin: Oh, I do that a lot, I mean, I do it on the road. I’ve given speeches on this subject.
Lloyd: Mm-hmm, I’ve read them.
Colin: For example, when I was up at Chautauqua this last summer, I had questions about that and I responded to those questions. I think people really took it to heart. One of the things I was asked about, for example, in this regard, was volunteer service, military service or alternative service. My own view is that we ought to have an obligation for civic service in this country as they do in Israel, for example, for all young people so that they understand how important this is.
It really depends on your priority. It really depends where you put this issue of meeting civic responsibility and participation on the agenda. I think you may be able to tell, I put it pretty high, very high. Because I value what this nation has become and I’d like to see it be sustained over the long haul and I do not think it can be sustained over the long haul if people do not participate. So, in terms of priorities, you’re going to have to put that into the mix, in my view.
Lloyd: I am old enough that I had to go into the Army for two years when I was young. I am not sure that younger people now, college-age students now, would accept that. Are you?
Colin: Oh, I think they would not. I think it would be extremely difficult. It’s going to be tested, or at least one congressman is pushing it pretty hard right now as a way to emphasize issues related to the importance of war. But from my perspective, it’s going to be very hard to persuade people that they need – that they have an obligation, a civic obligation, whether it’s military or alternative service, and I think that’s critical.
Lloyd: Oh, so do I.
Colin: But I really, I think we have to try. It’ll come back, I’ll betcha.
Lloyd: Okay, devil’s advocate again. Suppose we don’t try?
Colin: Suppose we don’t try? Suppose we don’t do what we need to do to more effectively encourage citizens to participate in society?
Colin: Then you get policies and directions for the nation which do not reflect the people’s will. And how far can that go? I’m not the-sky-is-falling type of person. But, over the long haul, it can go anywhere. Democracies have not been sustained in the past. The Greek example’s a pretty good one, isn’t it? It does not get sustained without effort. And if that effort isn’t made, then it may not well be sustained. I really do think that’s a possibility.
Lloyd: Unfortunately, I think you’re probably right.
Colin: Well, let’s hope we don’t find out!
Lloyd: As you know, I have a personal interest in history. One of the things that Franklin said, when he was 81 or 82 and had gotten tired of it, was that we were going to wind up with a dictatorship because that would be the only thing that we would be worthy of.
Lloyd: And that, to me, is a frightening thing.
Colin: Me, too.
Lloyd: Franklin could say some silly things, but he was usually right. And that one just sort of scares me a bit. The other one was [Edward] Gibbon’s, when he was talking about Sparta, because the people no longer cared to take responsibility for themselves, lost everything they had. And, you’re right, democracy is very, very fragile.
Colin: At the end of the day, democracy is everything we have.
Lloyd: How do you convince people of that?
Colin: Well, that’s what we’re trying to do in a whole lot of different ways at Colonial Williamsburg: In the street, at the Duke of Gloucester Street, and I do think that message is getting across. Young people are suggesting that. That’s what we try to do with our Educational Outreach programs. We get out into the schools, we tell the stories, and we tell why participation is important -- not with a lecture, but by example, by the story. We are continuing to do that. We’re developing a citizenship website, which will help people get background information about citizenship, why it’s important, what responsibilities mean to freedom over the long haul. So I think we’re doing that in our efforts to reach students and our efforts to reach adults. And we want to change the world, of course.
Lloyd: Sure, who doesn’t? That was my next question. If you are successful, how broadly do you think you can spread this message?
Colin: I think we can spread it very broadly, because we have a good reputation as an institution that people listen to. This program, the Revolutionary City program, has gotten huge national publicity, really, for a program of this kind, amazing. I think that is a good example of what we can accomplish.
I also think when we get into the schools, that’s when we’re really going to make the difference. Here, we do it with families, and that’s terribly important. But it’s in the schools. And we’re going to secondary schools in the next couple of years. We will be teaching, or offering a program that is based in civics, citizenship rooted in American history. So it’ll be linking civics and history together. I think that will be a very effective way to reach students at just the right point. And when that happens, I believe we will begin to make a difference.
We’re saying we want to change the way civics and history are taught in this country. And the textbook that’s been approved in California, that we are very much responsible for, a co-partner with the textbook company, is really a wonderful new way to teach. Our Teacher Institute is a new way to train teachers. Our Electronic Field Trips have been very effective in reaching students in new ways. So, I think this leadership role that we have assumed is going to make a difference in the area that I think is so crucial, which is why we’re putting so much energy and resource into it.Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. Check history.org often. We’ll post more for you to download and hear.