Virginia Code Section 22.1-201 states ”To increase knowledge of citizens' rights and responsibilities thereunder and to enhance the understanding of Virginia's unique role in the history of the United States, the Declaration of American Independence, the general principles of the Constitution of the United States, including the Bill of Rights, the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, the charters of the Virginia Company of April 10, 1606, May 23, 1609, and March 12, 1612, and the Virginia Declaration of Rights shall be thoroughly explained and taught by teachers to pupils in public elementary, middle, and high schools.” For many years the provision of civic education and history was to study the documents of history. Despite the fact that this requirement has been in the Code of Virginia for decades, it is a safe guess that few students graduating from public schools in Virginia can explain the history or purpose of these documents or how they came into being. Much criticism has been levied at the teaching of civics in our schools, and some of that comes from the emphasis on memorizing facts without any further in-depth meaning of what has been studied.
The section of Code goes on to provide that “emphasis shall be given to the relationship between these documents and Virginia history and to citizenship responsibilities inherent in the rights included in these documents.” I am particularly familiar with the language “citizenship responsibilities inherent in the rights included in these documents” as I had the language added to the Code in my early years as a member of the House of Delegates. I had taught school for less than three years teaching history and government. My observation was that many students who could recite their rights had little understanding of any obligations of citizenship that came with a study of these documents.
Recently I became aware of a just-released book by bestselling author, Richard Haass, who as a foreign policy expert asserts in his book, “The Bill of Obligations” (Penguin Press, 2023), that “the most urgent and significant threat to American security and stability stems not from abroad but from within, from political divisions that for only the second time in U.S. history have raised questions about the future of American democracy and even the United States itself.”
I have expressed my own concerns about the future of democracy. In future columns I will explore what I termed “responsibilities” in my amendment to the Code and what Haass calls “obligations.” His bill of obligations includes: be informed, get involved, stay open to compromise, remain civil, reject violence, value norms, promote the common good, respect government service, support the teaching of civics, and put country first. I recommend the book for personal reading and reflection and for discussion with family, especially young people, faith communities, and small groups.
It may not be necessary to add all these words to the Code, but it is critical that we add them to future public discourse.