What Commencement Speeches Leave Out

Want to change the world? En route to curing cancer, how about remembering to vote and go to jury duty?
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From top left, clockwise: Barack Obama, Eric Schmidt, Meryl Streep, Timothy Geithner, Brian Williams, J.K. Rowling, Elon Musk, Condoleezza Rice. (Reuters & AP)

Every spring, commencement speeches echo across college campuses, calling upon students to engage the world. Speakers will invariably haul out terms like "civic engagement" and "global citizenship." Lost in the inspiring rhetoric are the less glamorous, yet arguably more vital, daily forms of civic participation. Such soaring words often obscure the fact that our basic civic duties, voting, jury service, electoral office - the three core constitutional requirements of citizenship - are being ignored in favor of grand plans to "follow your passion" and "change the world."

Like generations before them, many of these young, idealistic Americans will only reluctantly accept, or even reject, invitations to daily citizenship offered by our Constitution. Many of them already have.

Even before they graduate, these students have often failed to vote. Voting is a precious right expanded to all of our citizens only after great struggle. Last year, two billion dollars were spent in the presidential election to get a little over half of eligible citizens to vote. Approximately, the same number of people watched the Super Bowl in 2012 as chose to participate in the central tenet of our constitutional democracy.

They will groan at receiving a jury summons, a core constitutional responsibility. Lost in their collective memories are the struggles for equal rights first fought by the Women's Suffrage Movement and then again by the Civil Rights Movement to get a seat on that jury panel. Lost is the understanding that equal citizenship means equal civic responsibilities.

They will complain at having to pay taxes. Every April 15th, Americans (young and old) unite in dislike of paying our share to the federal government. Yet, without the constitutional power to tax, little of the military security, connective infrastructure, or social safety net that defines modern America would exist.

This is not to cast generational blame. The problem affects all ages--as evidenced by the fact that the commencement speakers waxing poetic over lofty targets and forgetting more fundamental forms of engagement are often older individuals themselves. Nor is it to minimize the real civic and community service that young people do provide in other areas from military service, to volunteer work, to community development. But the problem remains that the call to commencement citizenship fades quickly: Graduates often wind up not doing even the small things they can do to change their world.

An honest commencement speech would acknowledge that we are a nation that glorifies constitutional rights but too often declines constitutional responsibilities. We embrace the ideals of engagement, but ignore the difficult work a democracy demands. Citizenship is not always grand and soaring, but involves daily, ordinary actions of maintenance. We should be inspired, but inspired by the common institutions that make democracy work.

Is there a better example of localized, empowering, educative self-government than jury service? Yet almost no effort is expended to improve awareness of its importance. The result is that one of our core civic duties has withered away because we no longer understand why jury duty matters. Juries remain a missed constitutional teaching moment for most citizens.

Voters braved long lines in November and faced other barriers to franchise that should never be repeated. This is a testament to the effort required for citizenship because, in truth, real citizenship is more like the long lines waiting to get into the polling place than the vote itself. Just ask those volunteers who sit in polling places all day every two years helping a democracy vote.

Daily citizenship means recalibrating our gaze to look at the local duties that need our support. Jury trials have been cancelled because not enough jurors showed up to court. Elections have been decided by a fraction of the populace because citizens did not show up to vote. Local elective offices go unfilled or ill-filled because not enough people decide to participate.

Civic responsibility is the rub of citizenship. As President Obama candidly acknowledged in his commencement address to Ohio State University this month, borrowing themes from John F. Kennedy's famous inaugural, "As citizens, we understand that it's not about what America can do for us. It's about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but absolutely necessary work of self-government." It is not about changing the world in a boundless future, but engaging constitutional responsibilities in the grounded present.

The political responsibilities of voting, jury service, and participating in elective office are the basics of our constitutional order. If we are inspired by anything at graduations, we should be inspired to participate in these fundamental, if ordinary, constitutional duties.

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Andrew Guthrie Ferguson is an assistant professor of law at the UDC David A. Clarke School of Law, and author of Why Jury Duty Matters: A Citizen’s Guide to Constitutional Action (NYU Press 2013). 

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