At the Naturalization Ceremony on May 29th in Washington, D.C., we were extremely fortunate that Ted McConnell was the keynote speaker. Ted is a member of the Citizenship Counts Advisory Board and is currently Executive Director of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools (CMS), a coalition of over 50 national organizations committed to improving the quality and quantity of civic learning in our nation’s schools. Please read his extremely important and compelling remarks that are copied below. Ted’s remarks clearly underline the importance of the work of Citizenship Counts.
Chief Judge Lamberth, Students and you beautiful new Citizens:
Welcome fellow citizens…to this…the greatest and longest running experiment in self governance in the history of mankind! Congratulations on all of your hard work to attain your citizenship. In attaining your citizenship, you join a long line of immigrants to the United States of America, a line stretching back well over 200 years, a line of individuals just like you, who have journeyed to America for a better life for yourselves and your families….a long line of “citizens by choice” who have helped enrich, strengthen and improve our nation.
To gain your citizenship you were required to pass an examination of your knowledge of American history and our system of government. In successfully passing that exam, you have done something that, sadly, over one-third of native born citizens could not do. A year and a half ago, Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, administered the test you each took to become a citizen to a representative sample of native born citizens. Over one third flunked the Citizenship exam. Eighty-five percent of native born citizens did not know the meaning of the phrase “rule of law.” Eighty-two percent could not name two rights stated in the Declaration of Independence. Seventy one percent were unable to identify our Constitution as the “supreme law of the land.”
This civic illiteracy among our fellow citizens threatens this long running experiment in self-governance. When the people don’t know the basic facts about our system of government, when they don’t know their rights and responsibilities as citizens, they are less likely to exercise their responsibilities by voting, taking part in their communities and knowing their rights as citizens.
The main reason for this alarming civic illiteracy among our fellow citizens is a lack of attention paid to civic education in our schools. A principal reason for the establishment of a free system of public education in our nation was the vital need to educate each generation of Americans about our system of government and their rights and responsibilities as citizens. This is the essential civic mission of our schools. For far too long we have taken civic education for granted and, worse, marginalized its importance.
We are counting on you new citizens and you outstanding students from Booker T. Washington, Stuart-Hobson and the Montessori schools to help revitalize civic education for all young Americans – to demand that the schools in your area provide the necessary education that would allow all Americans to pass the same Citizenship test you new citizens took with flying colors. We are counting on you to be engaged and informed citizens, who take an interest in and give back to your communities, to be “citizens by choice” who enrich our nation, like Mrs. Gerda Weissman Klein, the founder of Citizenship Counts, the co-sponsor of today’s ceremony.
You see, sixty-six years ago Mrs. Klein came to America seeking citizenship. Mrs. Klein had endured years of slave labor and concentration camps and a 350 mile death march, in the middle of winter, at the hands of the Nazis during World War II. She lost her parents, her only brother, her friends, all the people she had known to Nazi brutality. She came here barely speaking English and knowing only her new husband – the American GI who had liberated her.
After all she endured, no one would blame Mrs. Klein for just enjoying a life of ease and pleasure in her new country, tending to her needs and those of her family. Instead, she quickly became involved in her community, volunteering for a variety of causes to make her community better and to help ease the suffering of others. Her local community service and volunteer work led to national and international service to help other survivors of the Holocaust, to help sick and abused children and many other causes.
Several years ago, Mrs. Klein founded Citizenship Counts, an organization dedicated to educating our youth about citizenship, to help them appreciate their rights and responsibilities as citizens and to celebrate citizenship by studying the naturalization process and to help host a naturalization ceremony as a community service learning project.
For all this “citizen by choice” has done for our nation, last year the President of the United States awarded Mrs. Klein the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor an American civilian can receive.
Let Gerda Weissmann Klein be an example to you new citizens and to all of us, an example of giving back to our nation.
She has inspired so many Americans to appreciate citizenship and immigration. In fact, two outstanding citizens, part of the Citizenship Counts family of volunteers, Diane and John Eckstein, are walking and bicycling all the way across the country to promote the appreciation of citizenship and immigration. The Ecksteins are here with us today to celebrate you new citizens. Let’s all give them a big round of applause for what they are doing for our nation.
Yes, we are counting on you to be informed and engaged citizens to help keep this experiment in self-governance going. This was a charge given to all of us by the Founders of this nation.
Two hundred and twenty-five years ago this coming September 17th, on the closing day of the great convention, which wrote our Constitution in Philadelphia, a large crowd had gathered outside of Independence Hall to find out what the framers of the Constitution had done.
An old woman, dressed in rags, pushed her way to the front of the crowd and confronted the oldest of the framers, Dr. Benjamin Franklin, and suspiciously asked Dr. Franklin, “Just what for of government have you men given us?”
“A Republic, Madam,” Dr. Franklin replied, “if you can keep it!”
If we can keep it indeed!
For the past two hundred and twenty years that has been our charge from this nation’s founders – to keep, improve and pass along anew, this Republic.
Congratulations and Welcome new Citizens! Now this becomes your charge, your responsibility as well – to “keep our republic.”
Thank you and may God bless each of you and the United States of America.