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Who, What, When
After taking the oath of office this past January, President Barack Obama called for “a new era of responsibility: a recognition on the part of every American that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world.” He added that these duties represent both “the price and the promise of citizenship.” At Skidmore, we could not agree more. Informed responsible citizenship is a key concept in the College’s “Mission Statement” and the focus of goal three of our Strategic Plan.
The contemporary concept of citizenship originates in the Greek polis, where citizens enjoyed rights and accepted responsibilities to the city-state and the other individuals it comprised. President Obama’s remarks demonstrate that this notion of a reciprocity between social rights and obligations remains current today. Moreover, just as President Kennedy did in his own inaugural address, Obama extends the notion of citizenship, and hence its inherent responsibilities, much further —to encompass not only our local communities and our nation but ultimately the entire world.
Political rights in ancient Greece included the freedom to speak, to vote, to hold office, and to own property. As we know, however, not everyone participated in those freedoms. In Athens, for example, citizenship was denied to women, to slaves, and to males born outside the polis. In the United States today, we extend political rights much more widely. But in the words of Abraham Lincoln, our “union” remains “imperfect.” Despite the rise in voter participation inspired by our recent national election, too many Americans still remain aloof from the political process. Far too many lack access to even the most basic health care. And too many have not shared in the tremendous wealth that has been produced over the past century. Creating a truly open, broadly inclusive, and fully functioning democracy remains an arduous, ongoing, and sometimes frustrating process in which each of us has a stake. In other words, the duty of being a responsible citizen confronts all of us each and every day.
How are we to understand this responsibility? First of all it requires that we inform ourselves regarding the political decisions we confront—their historical, economic, and political contexts; the merits of opposing views; and the implications of the choices before us. But there is another side to it as well. The first-century (CE) Greek stoic philosopher Epictetus held that moral obligations originate in social relationships: “if you … contemplate the relations of neighbor, citizen, commander, you can deduce from each the corresponding duties.” Most of us today would agree that the relationships defining citizenship do give rise to ethical or moral duties.
On this model, to act responsibly a citizen needs to know how to make and defend ethical judgments within a pluralistic social context. Moreover, as a moral agent, one must “own” one’s actions—that is, one must take ultimate responsibility for deciding, out of the range of possibilities, what to do. Finally, a responsible citizen needs the self-discipline and, sometimes, the courage to choose what is best for the community, even when it might be at odds with his or her personal advantage or desires. President Obama pointed to these individual and shared dimensions of citizenship when he attributed our current economic woes not only to the “irresponsibility of some” but also to our “collective failure” to prevent them. In short, our duties as individual citizens extend across the larger social sphere.
In his Republic, Plato limited the ideal community to just over 5,000—a size, he believed, that would enable all citizens to hold land and work together effectively in times of both peace and war. Obviously, our social units are significantly larger, and Plato could scarcely have imagined the nature and scope of the challenges we face. Paradoxically, these facts only increase the importance of the individual. Even in a world community numbering in the billions, our actions still make real and substantive differences. This is why developing within our students both the intellectual and personal capacities—the knowledge, the will, and the courage—required for them to act as responsible citizens in our increasingly complex world engages our thinking each and every day.
In this issue of Scope Quarterly, we explore what responsible citizenship means to members of our College community. You will learn of graduates who have leapt into the political fray, putting themselves on the line to realize their visions of a better community, a better country, and a better world. You also will read the stories of equally passionate and committed faculty members and students who have worked to “get out the vote” and to create opportunities on campus for full and open debate of the most pressing issues of our day. In short, you will learn that responsible citizenship remains alive and well at Skidmore today.
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