This was a week where I was humbled by how much I don’t know. Too often we talk about civic literacy on this blog as if there is a cannon of knowledge from on high for a literate citizen to know. We boil this knowledge down to the recitation of dry facts about how many justices sit on the Supreme Court or what Constitutional Amendment says what. A recent Newsweek survey cried that 63% didn’t know there are nine justices, much to the amusement of UK publications. However, the standoff in the Ukraine and the student protests in Venezuela smacked me with how much more complex civic literacy is from the trivial way we speak about it in the public square.
While searching for more on Ukraine, I serendipitously stumbled across Dayo Olopade, the Nigerian-American author of The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa. In one of the best radio interviews I have ever heard, Olopade explains her frustration with how the world views Africa through a narrow lens of desperate poverty and corruption. Instead of evoking pity, her narrative was of a continent that wasn’t waiting for help. Seven of the ten fastest growing economies in the world are in Africa and that’s just what the statisticians can measure. The activity in the private sector and especially the informal economy has found ways to operate despite the inadequacy of the formal institutions that Westerners seem to focus on.
This narrative suggests that the foundations of African civil society lie not with governments that don’t meet the people where they are at. As Olopade puts it:
“When you think about an electrical grid that doesn’t work, when you think about schools that don’t educate children well, when you think about health systems that are strained, it can be a little overwhelming, and it can be depressing. By contrast, when you imagine these as motivations, which they are, when you imagine these as invitations to solve problems and to create dynamic, efficient workarounds, the state of affairs begins to look like a catalytic environment that generates new ideas that can, in fact, be applied to the developed world as well.”
The United States also struggles with infrastructure, education, and lack of health care. The distinct lack of leadership to solve these problems has left Americans pessimistic about our civic institutions: The most recent Economist/YouGov Poll on the Direction of Country: 26% Right Direction; 62% Wrong Track. When formal institutions don’t work, citizens are going to choose to invest their efforts in other places. The best way to increase knowledge of our civic institutions is for those institutions to function effectively in our lives. Otherwise, citizens will find a workaround, whether its in Nevada or Nigeria. In that way, we have a lot to learn from Africans.
Should people know how many justices are on the Supreme Court? YES! However, a better measure of civic literacy must be grounded in how American citizens are investing their civic energy. The world is far more complex than the state-centered chess match of the 20th Century. Despite the revival of Cold War conflicts of old this week, I find Olopade’s message to be a refreshing look into our future.
Matt Impink is a former US History Teacher and Education Policy Advocate. He is currently a Graduate Student at IU’s School for Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA) in Indianapolis and curates the Civic Blog. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and tweets @mrimpink.