The 2d annual conference of the Center for Civic Literacy was held this last weekend, and this is an abbreviated version of my introductory presentation. The sessions were videotaped, and will be posted to the Center’s website….I hope at least some of the readers of this blog will view some or all of them when they become available, because several were very thought-provoking.
This blog will return to its regular curmudgeonly ways tomorrow…
One year ago, we convened the first of what I hope will be many annual meetings of the National Advisory Committee of the Center for Civic Literacy. Those of us who had embarked on this venture were still very wet behind the academic ears, and the advice so generously shared by many of you proved invaluable as we considered the direction of Center research.
Because last year’s conference was the first, attendance was limited to presenters and members of the National Advisory Committee; this year, we have opened attendance to other interested parties—so we are joined for some or all of the sessions by teachers, political figures and others who are concerned with the causes and consequences of what we at CCL have come to call our “civic deficit.” We welcome you all and we want to hear your perspectives.
If you will recall, the theme of last year’s conference was “What We Know, What We Don’t, and Why It Matters: Surveying the Civic Literacy research landscape. (We do tend to have LONG titles…all with what my husband calls the ‘obligatory academic colon’…) Our goal for that first meeting was to establish a research trajectory and develop working partnerships, in order to both avoid duplications of effort and generate synergies among scholars and educators working on various aspects of the “civics deficit.”
After everyone went home last year, we spent a significant amount of time reviewing the conversations in which we’d participated, the notes taken by our graduate students, and the emails and other written suggestions provided by those in attendance. In addition to suggestions for specific research projects, some overarching themes emerged. The various comments, critiques and suggestions actually boiled down to a pretty coherent message—at least, according to our post hoc analysis:
- Don’t reinvent the wheel by continuing to research what Americans do and do not know. We already know that there is a civic deficit; there is ample evidence that confirms the existence of a genuine problem, a worrisome deficit of civic knowledge. There is little to be gained by having yet another set of researchers document the extent to which the sky is falling.
- Build on your strengths, and one of the Center’s important strengths is the interdisciplinary nature and focus of its faculty. A significant number of comments from last year stressed the value of– and the opportunities inherent in—truly interdisciplinary research. Several of you noted that scholars working on civics tend to come from discrete academic perspectives: educators who focus on curriculum and instructional issues; political scientists who research the political implications of low civic information; scientists and economists worried about public ignorance of basic terminology and principles, and so forth. An interdisciplinary center has an opportunity to “Connect the Dots,” to identify essential knowledge and to demonstrate the effects of the civic deficit across disciplinary boundaries.
- One reason that there is value in working more broadly across disciplines is that it should allows us to advance another priority identified by last year’s participants: raising the public profile and public understanding of the issue. As several of you pointed out last year, greater public awareness of both the nature and extent of the civic deficit and its consequences is absolutely critical to any effective effort to address the problems that flow from that deficit. Unless policymakers and citizens recognize the importance of civic education in arenas far removed from politics and elections—unless they understand its critical function in providing a common language through which a polity can deliberate—civics will continue to be a neglected stepchild in and out of school.
If I have learned anything in the two years of the Center’s existence, it is that civics is a lot like motherhood and the flag. Everyone gives lip service to its importance, but it isn’t sexy enough to fund. A significant part of that disinclination is a lack of understanding of the function and importance of research—the necessity of sound knowledge upon which to base programs and interventions.
While the philanthropic community is understandably focused on results—on programs that can be evaluated and results that can be quantified—those in this room understand that solutions to any problem require an accurate understanding of the problem to be solved. Diagnosis—as my medical colleagues will attest—must precede treatment.
The mission of the Center for Civic Literacy is to increase public awareness and understanding of the nature and dimensions of our civic deficit and the effect of that deficit upon democratic decision-making. In other words, we want to do careful research that tests the thesis that a deficit of civic knowledge is detrimental not just to political activities in a democratic system, but to the conduct of business enterprises, efforts to improve public policies and the tone and tenor of public discourse, to the ability to distinguish between good science and junk science, and literally hundreds of other aspects of 21st Century American life. If that thesis is correct, it will require other careful research: what is the nature of the information that is essential? Why? Does it vary from domain to domain? Does greater knowledge really enable more constructive civic conversations, or are ideology and motivated reasoning more responsible than ignorance for our current, toxic politics? What are the best practices for raising levels of public knowledge?
If we are going to justify our existence, and the value of our research, we have to start by making a far more visible and compelling case for the importance of civic knowledge. In order to do that, we need to be intellectually honest and methodologically rigorous—we need to truly understand the civic environment in which we find ourselves. We need to ask the right questions, collect credible evidence that will help us answer those questions. We need to connect the dots.
So—what have we been doing this past year to advance that agenda?
Since our last meeting, as most of you know, the Center has published the first issue of the online, peer-reviewed Journal of Civic Literacy, with an introductory essay by former Supreme Court Justice David Souter. (I should note that we are soliciting articles for our next issue, which will come out February 1st, 2015, and we also would love to add reviewers to our editorial board.)
Several of the faculty working with the Center here at IUPUI are pursuing research into questions raised in last year’s meeting and related issues. Center funds are supporting several of those efforts.
- Robert Helfenbein, Professor of Education, has led a group of doctoral students studying Civic Identity, Public Education and the African-American Community in Indianapolis—a project investigating how members of the local African-American community understand their political environment and form their civic identities. (Rob has left IUPUI for a position as Associate Dean of Education at Loyola University of Maryland, and we wish him well as he moves to a more distant relationship w/CCL)
- Beth Cate, SPEA Associate Professor of Law and Public Affairs and this Conference’s co-chair, is investigating the Public Use of Government Data to Enhance Civic Participation and ‘Crowdsource’ Problem Solving. I’m particularly intrigued by the part of her research focusing on ways in which things like The National Day of Hacking, the Knight Foundation’s OpenGov Challenge, and the implementation of federal agencies OGI 2.0 initiative are enhancing civic literacy. Or failing to do so.
- Aaron Dusso, Assistant Professor of Political Science in the School of Liberal Arts has just completed a fascinating survey he employed in gathering information that will inform a book he is writing on Democratic Demands and Citizen Capabilities.
- Using some of the data from that survey, Aaron and I have just completed an article comparing the relative importance of civic ignorance and motivated reasoning to our polarized political environment.
- Heather McCabe, Assistant Professor of Social Work, is continuing her collaboration with Social Work Professors at four other urban institutions to determine the degree of civic knowledge of graduate students in social work. Social workers have an ethical obligation to work for policy change benefitting the disadvantaged; the study is intended to ascertain whether those soon-to-be professionals have sufficient civic knowledge and skills to allow them to advance their professional policy goals.
- CCL is working closely with the Indiana Bar Foundation on both the We the People competition and on this year’s civic health index, about which you will hear more later in the program.
- Georgetown University Press has now published a slightly expanded version of the monograph we distributed last year, “Talking Politics: What you need to know before you open your mouth,” which is our effort to identify what constitutes essential civic knowledge, and Matt Impink and I are currently working on a book that will be jointly produced by CCL and the Bar Foundation, and distributed nationally, with some concrete proposals for raising the relevance and immediacy of civics instruction.
- The Center is also beginning some very preliminary discussions about potential joint efforts and collaborations with IUPUI’s highly ranked Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture.
This past year we have also produced and expanded the Center’s web page and blog, and thanks to the efforts of graduate students and researchers much, much younger than yours truly, we’ve twittered and Facebooked and—I recently discovered—we even have a YouTube channel.
All of that brings me to a final observation: as thoughtful as our presenters are—and we’re really proud of the line-up we’ve managed to corral!—the value of this annual meeting comes from your responses, your suggestions and cautions, and the interplay and discussion triggered by the various presenters and panelists. We are keenly aware of the gaps in our knowledge, the voids in the existing research—both ours and others—and the danger of just talking amongst ourselves. As fantastic a group as I personally believe we have involved in the Center, there’s nothing as dangerous as working in a bubble. We are counting on each of you to supply the missing information, the pertinent questions, and the needed critiques.
So don’t get too comfortable. You have work to do.
Let me just conclude with an observation. Several years ago, when I was the Director of Indiana’s ACLU, we published a magazine called “Common Ground.” It wasn’t a scholarly journal, but it was several notches up from a newsletter; it was an effort to reach out, to build bridges between our members and thoughtful people who didn’t understand what the organization did or why we did it. We wanted to create a forum that would provide people who didn’t necessarily agree on the issues we cared about with a common language, a common frame of reference (hence the name, Common Ground), within which we could engage in genuine dialogue. I think it is fair to say that the Center for Civic Literacy is engaged in the same effort.
In a diverse country, where people come from very different places, both geographically and ideologically, basic civic knowledge must provide the “common ground” on which we meet. It must equip us with a common language and vocabulary, so that we can talk to each other. We have to figure out why and how we lost that language, identify which of our current problems are a consequence of that loss, and determine what it is we need to do to recover it.
I hope you will evaluate the presentations here today and tomorrow in light of that goal.
Thank you and let’s get started.