I’ve told this story before, but it bears repeating.
I teach my law and public policy classes through a constitutional lens–I am convinced that students must understand America’s fundamental legal framework and philosophy if they are to approach policy proposals with the necessary analytic tools.
I often introduce the Free Speech provisions of the First Amendment by asking “What did James Madison think about porn on the Internet?” Usually, the student I’ve asked will laugh and respond that Madison never encountered the Internet; that leads to a discussion of the expressive values Madison and other Founders were trying to protect, and modern court efforts to protect those values in a world that the Founders could never have envisioned.
But several years ago, when I asked that question, the student looked at me blankly and said “Who’s James Madison?”
That experience–unfortunately, not an outlier–led to the establishment of the Center for Civic Literacy at IUPUI, (CCL) and efforts to determine how much Americans really know–or don’t– about our history and legal system, and research into the political and social consequences of low levels of civic knowledge.
If anyone doubts the corrosive effect of civic ignorance, I suggest watching this year’s political campaigns.
There is clearly little we can do to improve the contemporary, abysmal state of public discourse, but in addition to researching the causes and consequences of civic ignorance, those of us working at CCL have been working with the League of Women Voters and the Indiana Bar Foundation, among others, to produce materials that we hope will help address the issue.
The Center and the Bar Foundation have published a book called “Giving Civics a Sporting Chance.” The book points to the pervasive social and cultural supports that reward knowledge of sporting events and trivia, and makes the argument that we need to institute similar mechanisms that would reward and increase civic knowledge.
Young Americans who can tell you who threw out the winning pitch in the 1939 World Series are capable of answering equally obscure questions about the Articles of Confederation, but American culture privileges sports knowledge over civic literacy. The book suggests a number of mechanisms for increasing the cultural importance of civics–from relatively “do-able” measures like increasing participation in the excellent “We the People” curriculum and contest, to “wouldn’t it be wonderful” suggestions for a new GI Bill that would reduce student debt levels while increasing civic information and engagement.
Information about the book’s availability will be posted to the Center’s website shortly.
Another publication–originally an ebook, but just this month available in paperback–is a mere 36 pages of essential civic information. Titled Talking Politics? What You Need to Know Before Opening Your Mouth, it includes “What everyone should know about the Constitution and American legal system,” “What everyone should know about the American economic system,” “What everyone should know about science,” and “What everyone should know about politics.”
Obviously, all of those subjects cannot be comprehensively covered in 36 pages, but the book provides basic facts and settled definitions that can allow people to argue for their policy preferences more productively and persuasively.
I encourage readers of this blog to examine these two products, and if you find them useful–and I think you will–disseminate them broadly. Discuss the recommendations in “Giving Civics a Sporting Chance” with school curriculum officials. Read Talking Politics in your book club. Whatever.
I think thoughtful Americans of every party and political philosophy will agree that–whatever else America’s current election campaign may signify–the nomination of Donald Trump by a major party could only occur in a country where significant numbers of citizens have no understanding of way their nation’s government works, or the rules that constrain elected officials. That nomination should be our wake-up call.
Founding Director, Center for Civic Literacy
Professor, Law and Public Policy
School of Public & Environmental Affairs
Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis