Tag Archives: Center for Civic Literacy

Good Stuff!

I frequently think of that old Tom Lehrer lyric: “Remember why the good Lord made your eyes. So don’t shade your eyes–plagiarize! But always call it research.”

In that spirit…Don Knebel is a local attorney who blogs for the Center for Civic Literacy, and his most recent submission is so good, I have to call it “research,” and share it. (By the way, those of you who read this blog should check out CCL’s….we have a number of thought-provoking bloggers contributing to the conversation there.)

Don takes a look at the most recent in a long line of public prayer cases, and hazards a prediction or two:

On November 6, 2013, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments on one of the most vexing issues under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution —  When does the Constitutionally required governmental allowance of religious practices cross the line into Constitutionally prohibited governmental endorsement of religion?  The specific issue in the case is whether the town council of Greece, New York, should be allowed to continue opening its sessions with prayers having a distinctly Christian point of view.  The decision in the case won’t come for months, but I am going to predict the outcome of that case, something I have never done before.  When the decision is released, I will review how close I came to predicting the actual result.

During the arguments, the attorney for the two citizens of Greece who complained about the Christian prayers asked the Court to declare that Greece can only offer prayers that are acceptable to everyone but atheists and polytheists.  I predict the Court will not determine what should be in a public prayer.  First, parsing prayers to see whether they pass muster with persons of disparate faiths would put the government directly into the business of regulating both speech and a person’s practice of his or her religion, both of which the First Amendment says its cannot do.  More important, no conceivable prayer is acceptable to all the world’s believers, even if for some reason we were to leave out atheists and polytheists.  Even a prayer to a generic “creator” is contrary to the beliefs of many Buddhists that the universe was never created and that there is no God.  A prayer to a “Heavenly Father” won’t cut it for someone who believes in the Mother Goddess or denies the existence of heaven.   So we aren’t going to have prayer guidelines as a result of this case.

I also predict that the Supreme Court will not bar town councils from opening their sessions with prayer.  Such a result would be contrary to a long tradition in this country, predating the Constitution, of seeking divine guidance when doing the people’s business.  In prior cases, the Court has recognized that history.  The current Court, which opens its own sessions with a prayer that “God save the United States and this honorable court,” is not about to reverse itself on that issue.

So if the Supreme Court will not outlaw prayers and will not mandate acceptable prayers, how will it resolve the claim that sectarian governmental prayers are effectively endorsing a particular religion, in violation of the First Amendment?  I predict that Court will say that governmental bodies can open (or close) their sessions with prayer so long as they provide realistic opportunities to pray for citizens holding a variety of religious beliefs, including none at all.  So, if a citizen believing in the redemptive power of mushrooms wants to invoke the spirit of the Great Mushroom at a meeting of the town council, that person will have to be given a reasonable opportunity to do just that.  That is what it means to live in a pluralistic country, founded on religious tolerance and personal freedom.

Perhaps when members of the Church of Satan, professed atheists and others with non-traditional beliefs begin opening governmental meetings we will all start to recognize how truly diverse we have become and begin to curb our urge to pray aloud in public, something Jesus recommended a long time ago.  Matthew 6:5-6.  Eventually we may come to see that for governmental meetings and other public occasions, a respectful moment of silence, during which we can call upon whatever power is most meaningful to each of us, will do just fine.  Stay tuned.

Lots of Questions Worth Pondering

This weekend, our new Center for Civic Literacy hosted the first annual meeting of its National Advisory Committee–scholars and educators from around the country who are focused upon civic education. Our goal  was to emerge from the meeting with a more focused research agenda: a better grasp of what we do and don’t know and a clearer idea of the most urgent unanswered questions about America’s “civic deficit.”

It will take me several weeks to absorb everything I heard, but here–in no particular order–are some of the questions and observations that struck me as particularly weighty during our various sessions.

  • Can we say with any assurance that more and better information changes attitudes and behaviors? Educators certainly hope so, and marketing professionals who research advertising tell us that the more informed a consumer is, the more resistant she is to misleading framing in sales pitches, but we don’t know the extent to which information has this effect in more value-laden venues.
  • How do we inculcate what used to be (quaintly) called civic virtue? If–as one participant observed–American citizens have largely been transformed into consumers, where does that leave old-fashioned notions of civic duty?
  • How do we explain to the general public that civic literacy and civic skills are not simply concerned with affairs of government? Indeed, how do we achieve some measure of consensus about what such literacy and skills include? What is the content–the basic, minimal information– a citizen of 21st Century America needs in order to understand and navigate his environment?
  • How is the teaching of civic information and skills informed by the concept of civic identity?
  • Should teaching students how to evaluate the mountains of information and misinformation supplied by the Internet be considered a civic skill?

Perhaps the most penetrating question came from an eminent professor of Social Work, who asked “To what end are we engaging in civic education? What is the desired outcome? If we were wildly, improbably successful, how would the world change?”

How, indeed?

Announcement–and Invitation

Anyone who regularly reads this blog knows that I’m more or less obsessed by what Americans–ordinary citizens and elected officials alike–don’t know about our nation’s history, founding documents and legal system.

To reiterate my thesis: In a country where, increasingly, people read different books and newspapers, visit different blogs, watch different television programs, attend different churches and even speak different languages—where the information and beliefs we all share are diminishing and our variety and diversity are growing—it is more important than ever that Americans understand their history and their governing philosophy.

Our constitutional values are a covenant; they are ultimately all that Americans have in common.

All governments are human enterprises, and like all human enterprises, they will have their ups and downs. In the United States, however, the consequences of the “down” periods are potentially more serious than in more homogeneous nations, precisely because this is a country based upon covenant, upon what I have elsewhere called the American Idea. Americans do not share a single ethnicity, religion or race. Culture warriors to the contrary, we never have. We don’t share a comprehensive worldview. What we do share is a set of values, and when we don’t know what those values are or where they came from, we lose a critical part of what it is that makes us Americans.

At the end of the day, our public policies must be aligned with and supportive of our most fundamental values; the people we elect must demonstrate that they understand, respect and live up to those values; and the electorate has to be sufficiently knowledgeable about those values to hold public officials accountable.

To put it another way, our ability to trust one another and work together ultimately depends upon our ability to keep our governing structures true to our fundamental values, and we can’t do that if we don’t know what those values are or where they came from.

In a country that celebrates individual rights and respects individual liberty, there will always be dissent, differences of opinion, and struggles for power. But there are different kinds of discord, and they aren’t all equal. When we argue from within the constitutional culture—when we argue about the proper application of the American Idea to new situations or to previously marginalized populations—we strengthen our bonds and learn how to bridge our differences. When our divisions and debates pit powerful forces trying to rewrite our history and most basic rules against citizens who lack the wherewithal to enforce those rules, we undermine the American Idea and erode social trust.

That brings me to an announcement and a request—or maybe I should call it an invitation.

Scholars and educators have expressed concern over inadequacies in civic literacy and citizenship education for a very long time. Periodically, there have been efforts to increase requirements for civic and constitutional educational content, generally in government or “social studies” classes. Most recently, in 2003, the Alliance for Representative Democracy launched the Congressional Conference on Civic Education, and evidence indicates it did have a modest effect.  However, it followed the typical trajectory of these efforts, which has been an initial burst of enthusiasm followed by limited implementation.  The vast majority of new initiatives have had a very limited impact; worse, some states are now reducing social studies and civics requirements in order to focus on subjects tested under the No Child Left Behind Act.

I am currently working with several of my colleagues on a new project: the establishment of a Center on Civic Literacy at IUPUI.  We just received funding for our first three years, so this is a brand-new initiative. My colleagues and I represent different disciplines—law, business, social work, religious studies, bioethics and education—because we are painfully aware that all of our disciplines are adversely affected by low civic literacy. The Center will offer a clearinghouse for research, and will publish a peer-reviewed journal; we also intend to conduct original research on a large number of questions: we want to identify programs and curricula that have demonstrated effectiveness in producing civically-literate students; we want to know why previous efforts at reform have lacked staying power.  We want to investigate the theorized consequences of civic ignorance. And we want to develop a set of recommendations for basic civic education that can be both implemented and sustained.

One of our first projects is something we are calling “The Civic Challenge.” Indiana will celebrate the bicentennial of the state constitution in 2016. What better way to mark the occasion than with a two-year Civic Challenge, in which the entire community engages in a conversation about the U.S. and Indiana Constitutions?  The idea is that every organization we can enlist will use their program years 2015 and 2016 to focus on the Constitution and issues of Constitutional literacy. I see it as sort of a “One community, one book” project on steroids.

Even though we have barely begun, a number of organizations are already on board: the Indianapolis-Marion County Library system, the Indiana Historical Society, the Indiana Humanities Council, Phoenix Theater and the IRT, the League of Women Voters, the Bar Foundation…and many others. We want to make this a high-profile, community-wide, fun project. (It has even been suggested that we enlist sports bars willing to focus their trivia contests on Constitutional rather than sports trivia.) We plan a web site, a Facebook page…well, you get the idea. The hope is to engage the whole community—left, right and center, religious and secular, immigrant and native born, minority and majority–everybody we can corral.

We plan to administer a survey to Indianapolis citizens before we begin the Civic Challenge, and again when it concludes, to see if we have managed to “raise the bar.” If we have, we will challenge other cities to do the same.

We are in the very early planning stages. If this first project is to be successful, we need good ideas for organizations, programs, contests..in short, we need people willing to be involved with the effort. That’s my invitation. If you are interested in knowing more, you can contact me directly at shekenne@iupui.edu or follow our progress on this blog.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if I think the Establishment Clause requires a certain result and you think it requires a different one. What matters is that we both know what the Establishment Clause is, and what value it was meant to protect. It doesn’t matter whether I think Freedom of the Press extends to bloggers and you disagree. It matters a lot that we both know what Freedom of the Press means, and why it was considered essential to trustworthy government.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said we are all entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts. If I think this is a table and you think it’s a chair, we aren’t going to have a productive discussion about its use. We don’t need citizens who all agree about the implications of our founding decisions, or who even agree with the decisions themselves. But we desperately need citizens who share an understanding of what those decisions were.

I hope you’ll agree—and participate in the civic challenge!