In a recent op-ed column for the New York Times (“We Used to Build Things”), David Brooks looked back a century or so ago to the birth of the U.S. Forest Service. It was a timely piece, given the wildfires that were turning Northern California into a charred wasteland, but Mr. Brooks also used the Forest Service as a prime example of how we – as in “we, the people” – would respond when called upon to face down crises or to seize opportunities. The concept of civic responsibility was an actual part of the American ethos.
This wasn’t an overtly political column by Mr. Brooks. Yes, some of the things built in that era were new government agencies but not all of them. Several were long-lasting organizations and institutions and others were social movements that had lasting impact on our civic well-being and health.
Enhancing civic well-being and health of American life is a tall order but it shouldn’t be dismissed as utopian. It should, in fact, be a mission statement collectively held by the public sector (i.e. governmental), the private sector (aka, the profit-making corporate) sector and the non-profit sector.
That last one violates my sense of grammatical right and wrong, defining a thing by what it is not. Is “non-partisan” a useful or even possible adjective? Are we relieved or made anxious to know that “non-dairy creamers” and “non-lethal weapons” are available to us?
I’m not the only one who finds “non-profit” to be an unsatisfying descriptor. That’s why we have the Third Sector and the Independent Sector. We also have the Not-for-Profit Sector but I think we can all agree that it sounds like we’d like to make a profit but we don’t want to try that hard. “Third” and “Independent” aren’t much more helpful.
Let’s give civility a try. Let’s throw civic duty into the mix. If we want to be really utopian, let’s see if we can restore some civilized language and behavior to the national conversation.
We periodically hear (or make) complaints about the absence of civics education in high schools. I point my finger at the standardized test crowd, the 3R’s folks, for putting civics education in the Nice But Not Necessary category. It’s a category that includes art, home-ec, driver’s-ed and gym.
Still, high school and college are, for many of us, the last settings where we are expected to practice some civic responsibility. I am more concerned about what we learn after our years of formal education are behind us. I am more concerned, that is, by people who don’t vote and people who complain about taxes.
Those are the people who think someone else should pay for roads and bridges, schools and libraries, the National Parks and the National Guard. Because being civilized is all about belonging to a civilization and we should all understand that we have civic duties.
So there it is. We have the Public Sector, the Private Sector and the Civic Sector. It makes me want to go out and build something.