"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)

12.04.2006

citizenship

I pulled up this picture from the BBC archives today while preparing my last lecture for the American government class. This is the first time I've taught American government. I haven't TA-ed for it, or even had a class in it since high school. So this semester has been a learning experience. I had forgotten so much (SO much) about how a bill becomes a law, the specific powers and responsibilities of the different branches and agencies of the federal government, and what specific criteria must be met for a case to be heard before the Supreme Court. Then there's all the stuff I never knew about, like theories about voting behavior, turnout, and redistricting. For the last class, we have to talk about public policy and the welfare state. And I am thinking about having the students take the citizenship test that immigrants take when they hope to become citizens.

American government isn't what I do. Of course I'm interested in it, and of course I think and write about politics a lot, but it isn't what I study. But there's a commonality to all of it. And that's why I was looking for this picture to use in my lecture on the last day of the course.

This picture is from the 1994 elections in South Africa, when millions of South Africans stood in line for hours and hours to cast votes for the first time in their lives. The lines were miles long, and polls had to be kept open for a third day in some places to allow everyone the opportunity to vote. It was a monumental day, to put it mildly. Listen to this BBC broadcast from that day - you can hear the emotion in the reporters' voices.

I cry every time I look at this picture. It's important to me because it symbolizes the hope and freedom of millions of people who had known little of either up until that day. It's important because there are so many others, in Africa and elsewhere, who don't have the freedom to voice their opinons, to choose their government, to improve their lives.

And that's why I want to use it to close my American government class. Voting and citizenship are rights we take for granted here in this comfortable little corner of Texas. Only 36% of registered voting Texans even bothered to vote in November. What I want my students to take away from this class isn't knowledge about the Anti-Federalists or the number of seats on the Supreme Court. They can google those things, in the unlikely event that their lives or future careers depend on that knowledge.

No, what I want my students to carry into the rest of their lives is that there are people in this world who do not take citizenship for granted. That there are people for whom the rights and responsibilities of citizenship are worth everything - worth risking death to cross a border in the desert, worth studying hard for a difficult exam. And worth standing in line for hours, just to vote.

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