Tag Archives: conference

Join the (Civic) Deficit Hawks

Several days ago, I referenced the first issue of The Journal of Civic Literacy. 

The introductory essay by former Supreme Court Justice David Souter really laid out the reason for both the Journal and the Center for Civic Literacy. Souter shared his concern that– without an understanding of the fundamentals–constitutional values will make no sense to people, because they have no context for them, no framework within which to understand them. And after listing the numerous influences that divide and polarize Americans, he wrote:

 “These are conditions, historical and contemporary, that drive us apart and tend to disunite us. What have we got pulling on the other side? By and large, what we have pulling on the other side is an adherence to an American Constitutional system… The American Constitution is not simply a blueprint for structure, though it is that. It is not merely a Bill of Rights, though it is that, too. It is in essence, a value system… We need to teach that we have a value system, and the one common value system that we can claim to have in the United States is the constitutional value system: a value system that identifies the legitimate objects of power, the importance ofdistributing power, and the need to limit power by a shared and enforceable conception of human worth.

That value system is the counterpoise to the divisive tendencies that are so strong today, and civic ignorance is its enemy. It is beyond me how anyone can assume that our system of constitutional values is going to survive in the current divisive atmosphere while being unknown to the majority of the people of the United States. It is only in the common acceptance of that value system that at the end of the day, nomatter what we are fighting about, no matter what the vote is in Congress or the State House or the townmeeting, we will still understand that something holds us together.”

That danger–that Americans will increasingly fracture into interest groups and contending constituencies, that we will increasingly lose the “unum” in the maelstrom of our “pluribus”– will be the focus of the Center for Civic Literacy’s upcoming National Conference on August 22-24 in downtown Indianapolis. The (somewhat ungainly) title of the conference is “Connecting the Dots: The Impact of Civic Literacy Gaps on Democracy, the Economy and Society, and Charting a Path Forward.”

We want to move the conversation about how to address our civic deficit away from a single-minded focus on classroom and curriculum—important as those are—to a consideration of the multiple other ways in which public ignorance of basic history, government, economics and science are impeding America’s ability to achieve even our most widely-held political, economic and social goals.

We also hope to go beyond the usual hand-wringing, and consider our options for improving the situation.

The program will open with a welcome from former Indiana Supreme Court Justice Ted Boehm, who chairs the Center’s National Advisory Committee, and will feature presentations from such nationally-known figures as Ted McConnell, Executive Director of the Civic Mission of the Schools Campaign, David Schultz, election law expert and Professor at Hamline University, Dallas Dishman, Executive Director of the Geffen Foundation, and Kim McLauren, Director of the Brennan Constitutional Literacy Foundation, among many others. (Even yours truly.)

Attendance at last year’s conference was limited to members of our National Advisory Committee. This year, we have opened it to members of the general public who may be interested, although space considerations limit the number of people we can accommodate. (Registration information is here.)

I hope at least some of you who follow this blog will deliberate with us, and join the ranks of the civic deficit hawks. We need all the help we can get.




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?