A Serious Question

Our ship has crossed the pond, and we are moored in St. Malo, in northern France.

While we browse the walled city (despite the cold and rain), I’d like you to consider a question that I find increasingly pressing—and confounding: what must a citizen know?

In other words, what are the absolute essentials, the basic information and skills, needed in order to be a citizen (as opposed to a resident) of a democratic nation-state? There are obviously lots of things it would be nice if people knew, but I’m looking for the irreducible minimum here. If you could wave a magic wand and require an essential curriculum of your own devising, what would that curriculum contain, and why?

This is not an idle question; I really, really want to know what you think.

I’m leaving now. Talk amongst yourselves.


  1. Interesting question. When the states started their respective education systems, the first paragraph of the constitutions establishing those systems usually explicitly stated citizenship, as a value and a goal. It wasn’t to fill in the correct answers on a multiple choice test, although those skills were certainly a part of it. A citizen works to serve the common good and uses Constitutional rights thoughtfully and critically to make the “grand experiment” succeed. The founders wanted people who were willing to sacrifice to make that happen.

  2. My husband became a citizen last June so if you look at the requirements to pass the citizenship test, your question is answered. Those are the bare minimum requirements to become a citizen, besides reading and speaking English enough to take the test. It’s a verbal test.

  3. Though it’s not a teachable skill (per se), I think empathy is maybe the most important concept for one to understand in a democratic society. The ability to put yourself in someone’s shoes, to understand their situation and outlook, and critically analyze their opinions and judgements would go a long way in helping repair our current cacophony.

  4. Absolute essential to be a citizen in a democracy? I think it’s the willingness and ability to employ critical thinking skills.

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