Today’s blog is a departure from my usual content.
As regular readers of this blog know, three years ago I received a grant to establish a Center for Civic Literacy at IUPUI. (You can find out much more about the Center by clicking through to its website.)
That initial grant has run out, and together with a small group of political and business leaders, I am engaged in fundraising to keep the Center alive. (What I have discovered during the past three years is that–although everyone agrees that civic ignorance is a problem–civic literacy is not a high priority for most potential donors.)
So today I am posting a recent “pitch” I have used (below), for two reasons: first, the readers of this blog often share really good ideas and perspectives that I hadn’t considered, and I welcome suggestions for how I might sharpen and improve the “case” for philanthropic funding; and second–and more shamelessly– to provide an online mechanism to support the Center with a tax-deductible donation by those who may be so inclined. (The Center appears in the drop-down menu.) (Feel free to share!!)
I’m grateful for your help–whichever form it takes!
Only 36 percent of Americans can name the three branches of government. Fewer than half of 12th grade students can describe the meaning of federalism. Only 35% of teenagers can identify “We the People” as the first three words of the Constitution. Fifty-eight percent of Americans can’t identify a single department in the United States Cabinet. Only 5% of high school seniors can identify checks on presidential power, only 43% could name the two major political parties, only 11% knew the length of a Senator’s term, and only 23% could name the first President of the United States.
In today’s media environment, these and other deficits in civic knowledge are too often filled with propaganda, internet “memes” and misdirection.
Productive civic debate requires shared understandings. When citizens lack basic knowledge, or argue from different realities, we fail to clarify areas of dispute and leave the parties feeling unheard and angry. If I say this is a table and you say it’s a chair, we aren’t going to have a very constructive conversation about its use.
Indiana’s recent RFRA debate was an unfortunate and costly example of what I call “the civic deficit.” The arguments for RFRA’s passage–as well as some of the claims about its probable effects–displayed some very basic misunderstandings of what the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause protects.
It’s not an isolated example.
Essential civic knowledge goes beyond basic American history and the Constitution. If Americans don’t know what science is, we can’t debate the implications of climate change. If we don’t know the difference between the deficit and the debt, we can’t evaluate the merits of economic policy proposals. And we can’t keep our elected officials accountable if we don’t know anything about the Constitution to which they are supposed to be faithful.
Research shows a high correlation between civic knowledge and civic participation. The Center for Civic Literacy recently co-operated with the Indiana Bar Foundation on the most recent Civic Health Index for our state.
- 5% of Hoosiers report working with neighbors to solve a community problem. Indiana ranks 47th among the states.
- 5% of us participate in associations or organizations. We rank 44th.
- 62% of those who are eligible are registered to vote. We rank 37th.
- In the last off-year election, as you may have heard, 39.4% voted, ranking Indiana dead last among the states.
- Only 11% of Hoosiers report ever contacting a public official. We rank 30th.
The Center for Civic Literacy has spent its first three years researching the causes and consequences of civic ignorance, because you can’t prescribe remedies if you don’t understand the problem. More recently, in addition to this ongoing research, we are engaging in what academics call “translational research”—on-the-ground efforts in Indiana to see if we can’t turn things around and raise those civic health indicators.
We are co-operating with the Indiana Department of Education on an effort to recognize and encourage innovative approaches to the teaching of civics; planning a three-forum series in Indianapolis in advance of the upcoming municipal elections, called “Electing Our Future: What You Need to Know about Indianapolis Government in order to Cast an Informed Vote”; partnering with the Indiana Humanities Council to highlight the importance of civic literacy during Indiana’s Bicentennial celebration next year; and fielding a survey to measure Hoosiers’ civic knowledge and provide a baseline for measuring improvement, among several other efforts.
Maintaining a research center is expensive. Fielding a small survey costs 10,000. The annual cost for a graduate student working 25 hours a week is 24,000. Buying 25% of the time of the PPI senior researcher who serves as our project manager runs another 20,000-25,000 annually. Even when we are able to secure grants for specific projects, those “infrastructure” costs must be covered by operating funds.
With your help and support, we think we can improve informed civic participation in Indiana. But we can’t do it without you.