Only 36 percent of Americans can name the three branches of government. Only 21 percent of high school seniors can list two privileges that United States citizens have that noncitizens don’t. Fewer than a quarter of the nation’s 12th graders are proficient in civics.
Only one-fifth to one-third of American adults understand basic scientific concepts like the importance of formulating theories and using control groups in studies. A growing percentage of conservatives and liberals now disdain political compromise and want to live among people who share their political views.
But so what? Why does this matter?
It matters because democratic self-government requires a civically educated citizenry; when a society is very diverse, as it is in the United States, the formation of a common national identity requires citizens who know the history and philosophy of their governing institutions, who know how to identify and evaluate challenges facing our nation, and who can work together to formulate policy responses.
It also matters because we the people are charged with protecting our interests. If we don’t know how our government is supposed to behave, how do we know when our leaders are misbehaving? If we don’t know basic economic and scientific principles, how can we tell when media sources are misrepresenting policy decisions? If we don’t have the skills to consider varied points of view, brainstorm options, and reach acceptable compromise, how can we responsibly vote or decide what policies to support?
What do we absolutely need to know, and know how to do, in order to create better public policy for our communities and our country?
At CCL we seek to identify and address the causes and civic consequences of Americans’ low levels of constitutional, economic and scientific knowledge and civic skills. Every year we gather some of the best minds in the country, and explore these issues at an annual conference. The theme of this year’s conference, to be held on August 22-24 in Indianapolis, is “Connecting the Dots: The Impact of Civic Literacy Gaps on Democracy, the Economy and Society, and Charting a Path Forward.”
The program will open with a welcome from former Indiana Supreme Court Justice Theodore Boehm, who chairs the Center’s National Advisory Committee, and it will include addresses from Ted McConnell, Executive Director of the Civic Mission of Schools Campaign; David Schultz, Professor of Political Science at Hamline University; Dallas Dishman, Executive Director of the Geffen Foundation; and Kim McLaurin, Director of the Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project, among other notables.
The public is invited to attend this year’s conference, which will be held at the Crowne Plaza Union Station in Indianapolis. More information.
Sheila Suess Kennedy, J.D. is Director of the Center for Civic Literacy and Professor of Law and Public Policy in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis. She is the Executive Editor for the Journal of Civic Literacy.
Beth Cate is Associate Professor of Law and Public Affairs at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Cate is a member of the Core Faculty at the Center for Civic Literacy and Co-Chair of the 2014 Conference.