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Singing an Old Familiar Song

By Sheila Suess Kennedy on August 8, 2013 in Civic Blog
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Yesterday, I participated in the ACLU of Indiana’s much-lauded “First Wednesday” series. I was on a panel titled “The Constitution: Peruse It or Lose It.”   The program was introduced by ACLU Executive Director Jane Henegar; the moderator was local businessman and owner of the IBJ, Mickey Maurer; the two other panelists were Michael Gordon, who teaches government at Munster High School, and State Senator Brant Hershmann.

Michael Gordon was superb. If we could clone this guy and put a clone in every high school government class, we might beat this civic deficit problem. And this event may have marked the first time I’ve ever agreed with Sen. Hershmann (who opposes any and all gun regulations, and sponsored the ban on same-sex marriage, among other things).

The format was informal, with Mickey goading the panelists (and making an effort to promote fireworks–an effort that failed). Although there were no scripts, we each were allowed a brief opening statement, and I thought I’d share mine.

I know this will seem all too familiar to regular readers, but really–it can’t be said too often!

Only 36% of Americans know we have three branches of government. Why does that freak me out?  Why is civic literacy important?

This is a country where, increasingly, people read different books and newspapers, visit different blogs, watch different television programs, attend different churches and even speak different languages—where the information and beliefs we all share are diminishing and our variety and diversity are growing. Our constitutional values, our history and governing philosophy are ultimately all that Americans have in common.

Like all human enterprises, governments have their ups and downs. In the United States, however, the consequences of the “down” periods are potentially more serious than in more homogeneous nations, because this is a country based upon what Todd Gitlin has called a covenant. Americans don’t share a single ethnicity, religion or race. (Culture warriors to the contrary, we never have.) We don’t share a comprehensive worldview. What we do share is a set of values, and when we don’t know what those values are or where they came from, we lose a critical part of what it is that makes us Americans.

At the end of the day, our public policies must be aligned with and supportive of our most fundamental values; the people we elect must demonstrate that they understand, respect and live up to those values; and the electorate has to be sufficiently knowledgeable about those values to hold public officials accountable. We can’t do that if we don’t know what those values are or where they came from.

In a country that celebrates individual rights and respects individual liberty, there will always be dissent, differences of opinion, and struggles for power. But there are different kinds of discord, and they aren’t all equal. When we argue from within the constitutional culture—when we argue about the proper application of the American Idea to new situations or to previously marginalized populations—we strengthen our bonds and learn how to bridge our differences. When those arguments are between people trying to rewrite history and citizens who don’t know better, we undermine our political institutions and erode social trust.

At our new Center for Civic Literacy at IUPUI, we intend to research a large number of unanswered questions. What, for example, do citizens need to know? Why have previous efforts to improve civics instruction lacked staying power?  How is civic ignorance implicated in our currently toxic politics?

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if I think the Establishment Clause requires a certain result and you think it requires a different one. What matters is that we both know what the Establishment Clause is, and what value it was meant to protect. It doesn’t matter whether I think Freedom of the Press extends to bloggers and you disagree. It matters a lot that we both know what Freedom of the Press means, and why it was considered essential to the maintenance of trustworthy government.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said we are all entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts. If I think this is a table and you think it’s a chair, we aren’t going to have a very productive discussion about its use. We don’t need citizens who all agree about the implications of our founding decisions, or who even agree with the decisions themselves.

But we desperately need citizens who share an understanding of what those decisions were.

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.