top of page
Assignment #1: From Boston, Massachusetts (USA): Launching our Global Civic Obligations Initiative with an assignment

October 2020

Some background:

From the United States:  I don’t know about you, but lately thinking about government gives me…well, to be honest…a headache.   


I find myself constantly saying “The government ought to do this….the President ought to do that…”  Or "Why can’t someone [meaning somebody with an “official job” or with “power”] do something—you know—about THAT?!?”


I was born in the late 1950s.   The first president that I have any conscious memory of is John F. Kennedy. I was in kindergarten when he was assassinated and, like so many people who were alive that day, I remember it as if it were yesterday.   (I remember the principal of my elementary school coming over the loudspeaker.   He was crying and said “the President was shot in Dallas…”)  Maybe it’s for that reason that I have always paid attention to stories about John F. Kennedy.    History nerd that I am, I love going to the John F. Kennedy presidential museum and library on Columbia Point in Boston.   And I’ve listened over and over again to his speeches.  


One of his most memorable speeches was his very first as president.   In his 1961 inaugural address, Kennedy asked “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”  


48 years after JFK spoke those words, President Barack Obama, in his 2009 inaugural address, spoke of a “new era of responsibility--a recognition on the part of every American that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world; duties that we do not grudgingly accept, but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task.   This is the price and the promise of citizenship.”    Much wordier, I think, but essentially Obama is expanding on what JFK urged nearly five decades earlier,


All those questions I referred to earlier—that I have been asking lately (see paragraph 2, above, of the background to this assignment)--are asking what the country can do for ME.   None of them have anything to do with what I could do for my country.


Lately I think that one of the best things I could/can do for my country in the midst of the COVID pandemic we are experiencing is to wear a mask/face covering, socially distance, and wash my hands…again and again and again.   (How many times a day can you sing "happy birthday" twice? Never enough, it seems!)   It strikes me that it’s my civic duty.   It’s “what I can do for my country.”   (At the very least, it’s what I can do for my family, my neighbors, my colleagues, my city, my state and, oh yeah, my country.)  


I believe the “what I can do for my country” is fundamentally all about “what can I do—me, myself, and I—to advance what I (or we) would consider to be the ‘common good’ for other people.”


But shock and dismay: not everyone in the United States, apparently, is willing to do that.   I see it in my neighborhood.   I’ve seen it at the grocery store and at the pharmacy.  I saw it in the audience at the first Presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden.  What is that all about?  




I’ve been thinking about this deeply for the past few months.   That’s what motivated the civic obligation initiative that we are about to embark on.   I was wondering about these questions:

  • What do people in other parts of the world think about civic obligations?   


  • What do others see specifically as their “civic duties”/”civic obligations”/”civic responsibilities”?


  • Is there a “common good”?   Can we agree globally on what it is?  


  • Is the common good a worthy goal?  (I think it is.)  And what can we do individually to advance a common good?  

  • Should humans on this planet be required to do things that advance a common good or should we—as we seem to operate in the United States—be largely governed by individual choice?


It seems to me that there are at least five general areas or topics where we potentially can, through individual civic obligations or responsibilities, seek (and achieve) some “common good”:


  • Public health and well-being (including COVID and other diseases): What can/should individuals do to insure public health and well-being for the fellow humans?


  • Justice, laws, and public services: What can/should individuals do to guarantee rights, representation, and improve the quality of life for their fellow humans?


  • Securing and preserving peace: What can/should individuals do to secure and preserve peace so that no one has to live in fear or in danger of losing their lives?


  • Environment: What can/should individuals do to ensure that we preserve our planet, secure clean and safe water and air, preserve our natural resources, maintain livable temperatures, and ensure that the world can continue to support human life?


  • Guaranteeing the universal rights of everyone in our communities, in our nation, across the world: What can/should individuals do to protect the rights guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that every nation on the planet agreed to after the end of World War II? 

So here’s your assignment.


Using 5 Padlets (one devoted to each of the 5 topics described above), post a minimum of two statements for each Padlet that reads like this:


To advance the common good related to [fill in the topic], individuals need to commit themselves to ____________________________________________.


To read what students had to say in response to this assignment, please click on the relevant buttons on the left.

bottom of page