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History, Cut to Fit

By Sheila Suess Kennedy on August 29, 2013 in Civic Blog
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I have often written to complain that Americans know very little about our country’s history and governing structures–not to mention science and economics. A couple of days ago, a friend shared an exchange that once again underscored the point.

One of my friend’s high-school classmates had responded to a Facebook post in which he had saluted Lilly Company’s support for Freedom Indiana, the group formed to fight the effort to constitutionalize Indiana’s existing ban on same-sex marriage. The classmate wrote:

”The Constitution is inscribed to articulate inalienable rights we already have by virtue of the Creator. It is not an instrument whereby we are given grant ourselves wishes, no matter how well-intentioned they may be; no matter how noble they may sound.”

Grammatical errors aside, this construction pretty much stands history on its head. As my friend responded:

“What you’re describing here is a theocracy. Because we live in a nation with people of many faiths and people with none, I’m glad we don’t govern ourselves that way. Also, the term “inalienable rights” is from the Declaration of Independence, not the U.S. Constitution. There is no mention of God, Creator, etc. in the U.S. Constitution or the Bill of Rights (except to say “the year of our Lord” near the signatures). Even if you want to talk “inalienable rights” with regard to HJR-6 in Indiana, two of those articulated in the Declaration of Independence are “liberty” and “the pursuit of happiness.” I would suggest that by banning marriage for a subset of our fellow citizens, HJR-6 tramps on both of those “inalienable rights.”

My friend shared this exchange as confirmation that our concerns about widespread civic ignorance are valid. It certainly provides anecdotal confirmation of that concern. But it also raises some disquieting questions.

Would his high-school classmate see the world differently if he understood the history of America’s constituent documents? If he were familiar with Enlightenment philosophy, the writings of Hobbes and John Locke, the separationist beliefs of early religious figures like John Leland or Roger Williams? Or would he stubbornly “cherry pick” history and philosophy to make them conform to his own worldview? After all, it is enormously tempting to sift through biblical and constitutional texts to find support for our own prejudices, and right wing religious literalists aren’t the only people who do so.

Would we be able to communicate with each other more effectively if we shared a common understanding of the system we inherited–if we occupied the same reality? Or are we all so emotionally invested in our personal belief systems that we lack the openness required for genuine communication?

I have used my columns and blog to hammer at the importance of civic literacy, and I have warned of the dangers posed by our “civic deficit.” The establishment of a Center for Civic Literacy at IUPUI was based upon a belief that better civic education will provide us with a common language that will facilitate better communication, that better communication will lead to better policymaking, and that a common understanding of our roots will help ameliorate our toxic politics.

This exchange  between my civically savvy friend and his old high-school classmate reminded me that my premise could well be wrong. It may be that our very human desire to confirm our prejudices– and to deny inconvenient facts that are inconsistent with those prejudices–will always trump evidence contrary to our preferred realities.

Does education matter? Does it make a difference? We have to hope so.

This post was originally published on sheilakennedy.net on August 24th 2013 and republished here with the author’s permission.

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. Her scholarly publications include six books and numerous law review and journal articles. Professor Kennedy is a columnist for the Indianapolis Star and a frequent lecturer, public speaker and contributor to popular periodicals.