Yesterday, I spoke to the Danville Unitarians about–surprise!–the importance of civic knowledge, and what each of us can do to encourage its acquisition…Here’s what I said. Apologies for the length.
I was asked to talk today about the importance of what I call Civic Literacy—and to suggest what your congregation and each of you individually might do to encourage other people to acquire the knowledge necessary to properly discharge their citizenship responsibilities.
Let me share some background. In late 2010, I was teaching my undergraduate class in Law and Public Policy. I approach this subject-matter through a constitutional lens, because—after all—in order to be legally enforceable, policies have to be constitutional, and it helps when policymakers have some idea of what the Constitution requires. I begin with a brief description of the Enlightenment (which few of my undergraduate students have ever heard of), proceed to the “architecture” of our constitutional system, and then consider what people mean when they talk about “original intent.”
I often introduce that discussion by asking what James Madison thought about porn on the Internet.
Usually, the students to whom I direct that question laugh and say something to the effect that Madison could never have imagined something like the Internet. But of course, Madison did have opinions about the importance of free expression and the need to protect such expression from government censorship, so we proceed to discuss how the courts have applied the Founders’ intent – protection of the principleof freedom of speech—to a variety of communication mechanisms Madison could never have contemplated.
On this particular day, however, the student to whom I directed the question (a college junior) looked puzzled, and asked “Who is James Madison?”
It was my introduction to America’s civic literacy deficit.
That incident triggered a question I went on to explore: how widespread is such civic ignorance? What don’t Americans know about our country’s history, philosophy and legal system? The answer, according to the data then available, was: a lot. At the time, for example, only 36% of Americans could name the three branches of government. By last year, that same national survey found the number had slipped to 26%.
Overall, a huge amount of data confirms that most Americans know little or nothing about the Constitution, or about government, economics or science. Most cannot define the terms they routinely employ to embrace or dismiss different systems, like capitalism, socialism and fascism.
Why do I think that informed civic engagement is so important?
Civic literacy (or lack thereof) affects the whole of society. Reasonable levels are especially critical to the maintenance of democratic norms.
We are currently seeing the results when people elected to high office don’t respect those norms, or know anything about the Constitution, or the way government works—or for that matter, what science is or the most basic principles of economics. Such individuals are elected by voters who don’t understand those things, either– who don’t understand what skills governing requires and who are unable to evaluate the performance of the people they elect.
If that isn’t bad enough, over the past quarter century or so, we’ve seen the growth of yet another problem that is largely attributable to low levels of civic literacy: susceptibility to spin, propaganda and so-called “fake news.” When you don’t know what the rules really are, it’s easy to believe hysterical accusations. Did a Court say a cross on government property violated the Establishment Clause? That means Satanists have won, and we’ll have to remove the crosses from our churches! (True story.)
We know that the American public is ignorant—not stupid, just ignorant– but there’s a lot we don’t know about the causes and consequences of this very troubling deficit of civic knowledge:
· What is the civic deficit? i.e., what is the necessary content/what are the essential skills that make a person “civically literate”?
· How are civic literacy and civic engagement related? Which comes first? What behaviors beyond voting reflect civic engagement/civic skills?
· Where, besides some public-school classrooms, are civic skills taught and/or civic information imparted?
· Is there a relationship between perceived political efficacy and motivation to become civically knowledgeable? (“I can’t make a difference anyway, so why bother?”)
As an old lawyer once told me, there’s really only one legal or political question, and that’s “what do we do?” That’s the question the Center for Civic Literacy is now focusing on.
So—what can any of us do? Let me share a few ideas.
Awhile back, a graduate student and I wrote a short book we called Giving Civics a Sporting Chance. We compared America’s fascination with sports trivia to our lack of civic knowledge. Every weekend, some bar is holding a trivia contest and customers are demonstrating that they know who threw the winning pitch in the 1939 World Series. Why not hold trivia contests focused on American history, government and the constitution? (You might generate some local political support if you include questions like “Who’s your city councilor?” or “What does the county coroner do?”)
In Indianapolis, we worked with the public library on a project we called “Electing Our Future”—it might also serve as a template for local efforts. A couple of months before municipal elections, we had panel discussions about the issues winning candidates would face. We didn’t talk about the candidates–we didn’t even invite them– but about the problems we’d expect them to solve and the practical, legal and financial constraints they would face.
One effort that is still ongoing and has been very popular is an adult version of “We the People.” Women4Change worked with the National Center for Civic Literacy to offer one night per week, six-week versions of that very effective civics curriculum.
There is another thing that each of us can do to call attention to the superficiality of American knowledge. When we read a letter to the Editor or a post to a widely-read blog that misstates a Constitutional principle, or incorrectly defines an economic term, or confuses science with religion, we need to respond.
For example: “I noticed that Sally Smith dismissed evolution because it is “just a theory.” But “theory” in science is a technical term, not to be confused with ordinary usage. Scientific theories are supported by evidence that has been tested empirically….” You get the idea. These corrections should be as polite as we can make them, since the people who express uneducated, factually-wrong opinions are likely to resent having “smarty pants elitists” correct them. That said, I think a concerted effort to highlight misinformation and raise awareness would have a positive effect.
The problem isn’t just that Americans are deficient in knowledge about the country’s history, constitution and legal system— the problem is that, so far as I can tell, most Americans have been unconcerned about those deficiencies, and the failure of most schools to teach civics adequately.
One of the reasons our public schools don’t focus on educating future citizens is the philosophical divide among citizens about the purpose of public education. The arguments made by self-styled reformers tend to focus on education as a consumer good; a “good school” is one that imparts skills needed by children who will enter the global marketplace. In the United States, however, public education was originally conceived to be—in Benjamin Barber’s felicitous phrase—constitutive of a public. In an ever-more-diverse polity, where the Constitution and “American creed” are essential elements of our “civic religion” (and frequently the source of the only values we hold in common), a robust civics education is what allows us to “constitute” a polity. It is what makes us Americans.
Marketable skills and STEM skills are important, but so is familiarity with—and ideally, allegiance to– the history and philosophy of America’s approach to self-government. If there is one over-riding lesson we at the Center for Civic Literacy have learned it is that—despite our national fondness for flag waving and our constant, pious references to the Constitution—too few Americans know what the flag stands for, or what the Constitution says.
Ultimately, of course, we have to lobby our legislatures to require more and better history and civics instruction in our schools. When you think about it, Americans don’t pray to the same god, read the same books and newspapers, watch the same television shows, eat the same foods—a lot of us don’t even speak the same language. The only thing that all Americans have in common is a particular philosophy of government and a distinctive set of social values—and when we don’t know anything about that philosophy or those values, we aren’t Americans; we’re just a collection of separate, mutually-suspicious constituencies contending for power.
And most of us understand that encouraging distrust in a bunch of mutually hostile, know-nothing constituencies is highly unlikely to make America great again…