Sikhs and Civics

This day marks the 221th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution.

No matter how much we argue about the details of its meaning today, in the opinion of many, the Constitution signed in Philadelphia on September 17, 1787 represents the greatest expression of statesmanship and compromise ever written. In just four hand-written pages, the Constitution gives us no less than the owners’ manual to the greatest form of government the world has ever known. [Link]

To commemorate this historic day, the U.S. Congress designated September 17 as “Constitution Day” and required all schools that receive federal financial assistance to “provide some educational programming about the U.S. Constitution on or around Sept. 17[.]” Despite the brilliance of the American constitutional system and the congressional mandate for schools to study the Constitution on at least one day, ignorance of the American government remains high. For example:

  • When asked to name two of Snow White’s Seven Dwarfs and two of the nine U.S. Supreme Court Justices, 77% of Americans polled were able to identify two dwarfs, while only 24% could name two Supreme Court Justices.
  • 73% of those polled [were] able to name all three of The Three Stooges, while only 42% could name the three branches of government. [Link]

Further, more American teenagers

  • know the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air than know the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (94.7% to 2.2%)
  • know which city has the zip code “90210” than the city in which the U.S. Constitution was written (75% to 25%) [Link]

These and similar statistics should alarm Americans and they reflect the need for greater civics education in American schools. But we should not think that this is a concern from which Sikhs are exempt.

The Sikh way of life requires adherents to, among other things, participate actively in their society. For example, one of the pillars of the Sikh existence, Wand kay Shako, calls for Sikhs “to share ones wealth with others in the community, to give to charity, to distribute in Langar (free Kitchen) and to generally help others in the community who need help.” Civic participation, at least on some level, appears to be an inherent aspect of Sikh life.

It would seem, therefore, that in order for a Sikh to become a productive, honest member of society, it would be quite helpful to know the very basic framework, values, and principles of that society. To be sure, to comply with the strictures of the law does not mean one is necessarily living honestly and consistent with the Sikh dharmic code. But it would seem odd to live in a society and be compelled, by religious command, to contribute to that society, without absorbing to some extent the timeless fundamentals of the society itself. Sikhs therefore should do their part as members of the American experiment to learn what they can about this nation in order to meaningfully contribute to it and fulfill their religious obligations.

Earlier today, I was speaking with a granthi, or Sikh priest, and we commented on how America does not require active individual participation in its society; for example, one does not have to volunteer in a neighborhood. (The “right to be left alone” is indeed regarded as a quintessential American right.) But we also found it ironic that Sikhism — a largely immigrant faith — may provide a nexus between isolated individual conduct and social cohesion by requiring its followers to become engaged members of their communities.

In short, while the government must do more to make civics an integral element of American education and of responsible citizenship, Sikhs should do their part by learning more about the society they are to affirmatively assist.

Your thoughts on the importance of civics in early education and the relationship between Sikhs and active participation in society would be appreciated. As always, civil comments only.


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10 Responses to “Sikhs and Civics”

  1. Mewa Singh says:

    Publius,

    While I understand your broader argument, I think you are making a crucial link that I am not sure I also express. It seems that inherent in your argument is that to "know the very basic framework, values, and principles of that society" is to have knowledge of the functionings of the state. I do not believe that you can equate society and state.

    I don't think that civic engagement requires knowledge of the state. Although knowledge of the state (and here I would argue much more along power analysis) possibly increases one's ability to create change.

  2. Mewa Singh says:

    Publius,

    While I understand your broader argument, I think you are making a crucial link that I am not sure I also express. It seems that inherent in your argument is that to “know the very basic framework, values, and principles of that society” is to have knowledge of the functionings of the state. I do not believe that you can equate society and state.

    I don’t think that civic engagement requires knowledge of the state. Although knowledge of the state (and here I would argue much more along power analysis) possibly increases one’s ability to create change.

  3. kaptaan says:

    I agree with Mewa Singh's comments and would only add that, I am sure I don't agree with the link you are making.

    In fact, I think it is farcical to believe that knowledge of the inner workings of the state or knowledge of historic trivia has any relevance to someone's engagement with society or level of civic-mindedness.

    regards,

    K

  4. kaptaan says:

    I agree with Mewa Singh’s comments and would only add that, I am sure I don’t agree with the link you are making.

    In fact, I think it is farcical to believe that knowledge of the inner workings of the state or knowledge of historic trivia has any relevance to someone’s engagement with society or level of civic-mindedness.
    regards,
    K

  5. Publius says:

    Mewa and kaptaan, many thanks for your comments. It appears that we have differing conceptions of whether and to what extent a Sikh should be aware of the American government. I stress that our views are neither "right" nor "wrong", just "different." Here, I'd like to briefly, albeit partially, explain my perspective.

    When one mentions active service in society, what may clearly come to mind is a very basic form of service, such as performing langar seva or volunteering in a soup kitchen. But Sikh service in American society has taken on sophisticated forms, from establishing non-profit charitable organizations to advocating for civil and human rights. Therefore, as a practical matter, engaging in such service necessarily involves some degree of knowledge of the state.

    As a normative matter, the alternative, where a Sikh need not be aware of the fundamental values and institutions of his society as long as he performs active service in that society, seems quite problematic as well. I cannot imagine that Sikhs were intended to be an army of selfless servants completely detached from the organized parts of society. Moreover, if this view were to be followed in practice, Sikhs would not progress to advanced forms of civic involvement and would be limited in their progression — because of their *own* view that Sikhs need not know about the state.

    Now kaptaan talks about "historic trivia" – I am not saying that Sikhs should memorize some obscure facts about America or her history. I am suggesting, however, that Sikhs should know the essence of the society in which they live — the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the co-equal branches of federal governance, the equality of all, etc.

    In my humble view, and with respect, it is an element of responsible citizenship as well as a prudent aspect of civic engagement to know the fundamentals of the society itself. To serve blindly as a group is, I believe, a mistake and would run up against the realities of more sophisticated forms of civic engagement requiring state involvement.

  6. Mewa Singh says:

    Appreciate your response Publius.

    However, let us see if we can flush this out further.

    With your post, again, my main objection is where I believe you take state and society to be synonyms, whereas I agree that there may be a relationship, but synonyms they are not.

    When you wrote this comment,

    I am suggesting, however, that Sikhs should know the essence of the society in which they live — the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the co-equal branches of federal governance, the equality of all, etc.

    I believe that especially linked to the idea of 'co-equal branches of federal governance' that you could have replaced the word 'society' with 'state.'

    Again as in my first response, I am in complete agreement with you that knowledge of the state will aid Sikhs, or any group or individual for that matter, in their endeavors. However, such knowledge is not a pre-requisite for service or civic engagement. I think you would agree to this point. Thus while I second your comment that such knowledge is 'prudent,' I am not quite so sure that it is a barometer for 'responsible' citizenship. I hope that helped clarify my overlap as well as difference with your framework.

  7. Publius says:

    Mewa and kaptaan, many thanks for your comments. It appears that we have differing conceptions of whether and to what extent a Sikh should be aware of the American government. I stress that our views are neither “right” nor “wrong”, just “different.” Here, I’d like to briefly, albeit partially, explain my perspective.

    When one mentions active service in society, what may clearly come to mind is a very basic form of service, such as performing langar seva or volunteering in a soup kitchen. But Sikh service in American society has taken on sophisticated forms, from establishing non-profit charitable organizations to advocating for civil and human rights. Therefore, as a practical matter, engaging in such service necessarily involves some degree of knowledge of the state.

    As a normative matter, the alternative, where a Sikh need not be aware of the fundamental values and institutions of his society as long as he performs active service in that society, seems quite problematic as well. I cannot imagine that Sikhs were intended to be an army of selfless servants completely detached from the organized parts of society. Moreover, if this view were to be followed in practice, Sikhs would not progress to advanced forms of civic involvement and would be limited in their progression — because of their *own* view that Sikhs need not know about the state.

    Now kaptaan talks about “historic trivia” – I am not saying that Sikhs should memorize some obscure facts about America or her history. I am suggesting, however, that Sikhs should know the essence of the society in which they live — the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the co-equal branches of federal governance, the equality of all, etc.

    In my humble view, and with respect, it is an element of responsible citizenship as well as a prudent aspect of civic engagement to know the fundamentals of the society itself. To serve blindly as a group is, I believe, a mistake and would run up against the realities of more sophisticated forms of civic engagement requiring state involvement.

  8. Mewa Singh says:

    Appreciate your response Publius.

    However, let us see if we can flush this out further.

    With your post, again, my main objection is where I believe you take state and society to be synonyms, whereas I agree that there may be a relationship, but synonyms they are not.

    When you wrote this comment,

    I am suggesting, however, that Sikhs should know the essence of the society in which they live the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the co-equal branches of federal governance, the equality of all, etc.

    I believe that especially linked to the idea of ‘co-equal branches of federal governance’ that you could have replaced the word ‘society’ with ‘state.’

    Again as in my first response, I am in complete agreement with you that knowledge of the state will aid Sikhs, or any group or individual for that matter, in their endeavors. However, such knowledge is not a pre-requisite for service or civic engagement. I think you would agree to this point. Thus while I second your comment that such knowledge is ‘prudent,’ I am not quite so sure that it is a barometer for ‘responsible’ citizenship. I hope that helped clarify my overlap as well as difference with your framework.

  9. Publius says:

    Mewa Singh, thanks for your response and my apologies for my delayed reply. With respect to the portion of the original post that you highlighted, I agree that "state" would have been more appropriate in that sentence. I also agree that knowledge of the state need not be a condition precedent to performing seva. It borders on the absurd to think that a child wanting to perform langar seva would need to know the three branches of government before he can hand out roti. That said, it is my view that responsible citizenship as well as meaningful Sikh participation in society entails a basic understanding of the organized parts of that society. For example, a Sikh voting in the upcoming election should have some awareness of American government before casting their vote; yes they can vote in the absence of such knowledge, but political ignorance seems inconsistent with responsible participation in the process.

    Thanks for an interesting discussion!

  10. Publius says:

    Mewa Singh, thanks for your response and my apologies for my delayed reply. With respect to the portion of the original post that you highlighted, I agree that “state” would have been more appropriate in that sentence. I also agree that knowledge of the state need not be a condition precedent to performing seva. It borders on the absurd to think that a child wanting to perform langar seva would need to know the three branches of government before he can hand out roti. That said, it is my view that responsible citizenship as well as meaningful Sikh participation in society entails a basic understanding of the organized parts of that society. For example, a Sikh voting in the upcoming election should have some awareness of American government before casting their vote; yes they can vote in the absence of such knowledge, but political ignorance seems inconsistent with responsible participation in the process.

    Thanks for an interesting discussion!