Tag Archives: civics education

The Trust Conundrum

I was recently asked to participate in a panel exploring current levels of trust and distrust in government. Among other things, we were asked to consider what citizens might do to mitigate the growing cynicism about politics, and whether we thought the current media environment was contributing to widespread distrust of government at all levels.

These are questions worth pondering.

I think a great deal of distrust in government is a result of the deficit in civic literacy that I have written about previously. When citizens don’t understand constitutional constraints on the public sector, when they are unfamiliar with the most basic historical and philosophic roots of our particular approach to self-government, they are unable to evaluate the lawfulness of government activity. One result is that government action that should be entirely predictable looks arbitrary, while corruptions of the process are seen as “business as usual.” Normal checks and balances are decried as unnecessary red tape, and egregious abuses of legislative mechanisms like the filibuster are seen not as a misuse of power, but part of the ordinary, mysterious processes of the political system.

When citizens aren’t able to distinguish between use and misuse of the power of the state, it’s no wonder they believe all public policy is for sale.

The current chaos that is the media is even more consequential, because a healthy Fourth Estate is critical to democratic self-government.

Citizens can’t act on the basis of information they don’t have. The paradox of life in the age of the Internet is that there are more voices than ever before—theoretically, a good thing—but we’ve lost news that is collectively recognized as authoritative, which is proving to be a very bad thing. A babble of opinion, spin and outright fabrication has replaced what used to be called the “iron core”—reliable information that has been fact-checked and authenticated.

It is one thing to draw different conclusions from a reported set of facts; it is quite another to deny the existence of the facts themselves.

On the one hand, the Internet has empowered many more government watchdogs; on the other, it has facilitated the rise of innumerable conspiracy theorists, fringe groups, special interests and outright liars. The result is that someone who prefers to believe, say, that global climate change is a hoax or that President Obama is a secret Muslim born in Kenya can readily find sources that confirm those suspicions.

The days when everyone listened to—and trusted the veracity of—reporting by Walter Cronkite and his counterparts in the mainstream media are long gone. (Indeed, there is a persuasive argument to be made that there is no longer such a thing as “mainstream” media.) Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said that we are all entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts.  Today, thanks to incredibly shrinking newsrooms and proliferating propagandists, people are choosing their own facts, and increasingly living in alternate realities that conform to their pre-existing beliefs and prejudices. When thoughtful Americans aren’t sure what news they can trust, and ideologically rigid Americans—left and right—are living in information bubbles of their own choosing, the lack of constructive dialogue and institutional trust shouldn’t surprise us.

In a world that is changing as rapidly and dramatically as ours, the importance of real journalism—not “infotainment,” not talking heads, not bloggers, not columnists, not “he-said, she-said” stenographers, but actual fact-checked, verified news in context—becomes immeasurably more important.

Without a shared reality, we can’t build trust. Without accurate civics education and an authoritative journalism of verification, we can’t share a reality.

 

 

 

 

 

The Deficit That Matters

I know I’ve been beating this horse for awhile now, but I am firmly convinced that the most troubling deficit Americans face is not fiscal.

It’s our deficit of civic literacy.

Only 36 percent of Americans can correctly name the three branches of government. Fewer than half of 12th grade students can describe the meaning of federalism. Only 35.5% of teenagers can correctly identify “We the People” as the first three words of the Constitution. The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) 2006 report on civics competencies found that barely a quarter of the nation’s 4th, 8th and 12th graders are proficient in civics, with only five percent of seniors able to identify and explain checks on presidential power.  Things haven’t improved since then; the 2010 results were released earlier this year, and student performance at the 12th grade level showed a statistically significant decline since the 2006 test. Average scores for female, White and African American students declined, and the percentage of 12th grade students who reported studying the Constitution dropped by a statistically significant five percent. A list of all the additional literature documenting the extent of civic ignorance would be too lengthy to include.

The consequences of this ignorance are profound. The most important predictor of active civic engagement is greater civic knowledge–according to the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, greater civic literacy trumps even a college degree, and “no other variable, including age, income, race, gender, religion, or partisanship was found to exceed both the breadth and depth of civic literacy’s positive impact on active political engagement”.

Our research team conducted a survey of state departments of education, as part of an effort to determine the content and extent of civics instruction the various states are requiring. We identified two basic problems: first, there is no generally accepted definition of “civics” or “civic literacy.” Definitions ranged from knowledge of the Declaration, Constitution and Bill of Rights and their historical antecedents (our preferred meaning) to approaches that implicitly conflate community “good works” like planting trees or picking up trash in the parks or by the side of the road, with the production of “good citizens.” Depending upon a state’s particular view of what civics encompasses, civic education requirements might be met by taking a government course, a separate course called “civics,” an American history course, or some combination.

The second problem we found was that, with a few notable exceptions, even in states with very good civics and government standards, like Indiana, those standards are essentially aspirational. The requirements aren’t part of the current high-stakes testing regime, with the result that they are not taken seriously. Public schools’ focus remains firmly fixed upon those subjects being evaluated under No Child Left Behind, and the result is that large numbers of American students graduate from high school profoundly ignorant of the history, philosophy and architecture of their government institutions.

Scholars have identified a number of theorized consequences of our civic deficit: loss of civic identity; loss of public accountability; a paralyzed/polarized politics; a loss of personal agency, and unfortunate effects on the study of religion and science.

  • Civic identity. America is one of the most diverse countries on earth. Our citizens do not share a political history, a common religion, or a single race or ethnicity. As a consequence of immigration, we frequently do not even speak the same language. In the absence of such cultural ties, we require what Robert Bellah calls a “civil religion” in order to forge a common civic identity. In the United States, that civil religion has centered upon our constituent documents and the governing philosophy they embody, on what I call “The American Idea”. When Americans don’t know the contents of that Idea, when they are ignorant of the history, philosophy and evolution of our constitutional form of government, they may share a common national geography, but they don’t share a civic identity.
  • Public accountability. We hear a great deal about the obligation of government to be transparent and accountable. We hear less about the obligations of citizens to be sufficiently informed so that they can respond appropriately to information about the way in which government is conducting the people’s business. True accountability requires that those in power report adequately on the laws and regulations they have enacted and the other actions they have taken; it also requires a populace able to measure those laws and activities against the standards prescribed by our Constitution and Bill of Rights. When either half of that process is not functioning, accountability is compromised.
  • A paralyzed, polarized politics. We can see the consequences of our civic deficit every day, in presidential debates and campaigns for city councils. The loss of civic literacy is a loss of the ability to communicate. We can talk at each other, but no longer with each other, because we are not speaking the same language. American politicians on all points along the political spectrum constantly refer to the Constitution, but you only need to listen a short while to realize that very few of them seem to be talking about the same document.   This lack of a common frame of reference makes productive dialogue impossible.
  • Loss of personal agency. In a country where citizens constantly interact with public organizations—from the Social Security Administration, to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, to the local zoning administrator—a basic knowledge of one’s rights and duties as a citizen is essential to a sense of personal empowerment and efficacy. This is especially important to people who have limited personal and fiscal resources.
  • Science and religion. What is rarely noted, but important, is the relationship between students’ civic knowledge and their appreciation of the roots of both the American religious experience and the Establishment Clause. This is equally the case with science; both science and our particular conception of liberty and personal autonomy emerged from the Enlightenment, and some scholars have argued that science cannot flourish in a society in which that relationship is unrecognized.

The question is: what should we do? How do we fix this problem, which is at the root of so many other problems?

First, we need additional research.  What are the reasons for our current deficit? Why haven’t we been able to sustain previous efforts to strengthen civic education? What elements of civic literacy lead to civic participation and action? What curricula have demonstrated effectiveness? What do citizens absolutely need to understand in order to be empowered participants in our civic conversations? What do they need to know in order to hold government accountable?

Second, we need a campaign to draw increased public attention to the nature and extent of the problems caused by our deficit of civic literacy. We need to “connect the dots” between our impoverished civic understanding and our political gridlock and polarization, and we need to make the case that citizenship requires more than a birth certificate (short form or long!).

Deficit reduction needs to begin with sound civics education.

 

 

Restoring Civic Literacy

The following text is a speech I recently gave to the Indianapolis Chapter of the League of Women Voters about the abysmal state of historical/constitutional knowledge in America.

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When I was asked to speak, my “assignment”—or at least my intention—was to discuss one of my recent books, “Distrust, American Style.” In that book, I examined the claim made by some political scientists that America’s growing diversity has increased levels of social and interpersonal distrust. (In “academic speak,” such trust is called “social capital.”)  I disagreed with that analysis, because my own research suggested a rather different villain.

My thesis was—and remains—that the toxic political culture we inhabit isn’t a result of increasing diversity. Rather, I believe it is largely an outgrowth of our loss of trust in our common social and political institutions—primarily, although certainly not exclusively, our government—and that restoring that trust is critically important if we are to make our democracy work .

You can read the book (cheap on Amazon!) and decide for yourselves whether I made my case. And I’ll be happy to elaborate during Q & A. But today, I want to talk about what I think is one of the primary reasons so many of us don’t trust our government, and I want to ask for your help—the League’s help—in addressing the problem.  Let me explain.

I study how constitutional values operate within a diverse culture, how those values connect us to people with very different backgrounds and beliefs and make us all Americans.  That research has convinced me that widespread civic literacy—an understanding of the history and philosophy of our country—is absolutely critical to our continued ability to function as a unified people. That research has also convinced me that the civic literacy we need is in short supply.

Let me share an anecdote that may illustrate my concern. When I teach Law and Public Affairs, I begin with the way our particular legal framework limits our policy options, and how “original intent” guides our application of Constitutional principles to current conflicts. I usually ask students something like “What do you suppose James Madison thought about porn on the internet?” Usually, they’ll laugh and then we discuss how Madison’s beliefs about freedom of expression should guide courts faced with contemporary efforts to censor the internet. But a couple of years ago, when I asked a young woman—a junior in college—that question, she looked at me blankly and asked “Who’s James Madison?”

It’s tempting to dismiss this as anecdotal, but let me share with you just a tiny fraction of available research. A survey by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs recently asked high school students questions about the government. Here are some of those questions, and the percentages of students who answered them correctly:

What is the supreme law of the land? 28

What do we call the first ten amendments to the Constitution? 26

What are the two parts of the U.S. Congress? 27

How many justices are there on the Supreme Court? 10

Who wrote the Declaration of Independence? 14

What are the two major political parties in the United States? 43

We elect a U.S. senator for how many years? 11

Who was the first President of the United States? 23

Who is in charge of the executive branch? 29

There’s more—much more. Other research reveals that only 36 percent of Americans can correctly name the three branches of government. Fewer than half of 12th graders can describe the meaning of federalism. Only 35% of teenagers can correctly identify “We the People” as the first three words of the Constitution. The National Assessment of Education Progress reports that barely a quarter of the nation’s 4th, 8th and 12th graders are proficient in civics, with only five percent of seniors able to identify and explain checks on presidential power.

This is appalling. If you think about it, the choices originally made by the men who designed our constitutional architecture have shaped our culture. They dictate contemporary definitions of public and private, our notions of governmental and personal responsibility, and our conceptions of human rights. They frame the way we allocate collective social duties among governmental, nonprofit and private actors. In short, those initial constitutional choices created a distinctively American worldview.  Failure to understand and appreciate those initial decisions is failure to understand the world we live in; it is failure to understand the context of contemporary politics and policy.

Civic ignorance explains a great deal of the craziness and conflict we see around us. People who have little grasp of American history or the Enlightenment roots of our particular approach to government are those most easily mobilized by the demagogues who populate talk radio and television.

Constitutions are expressions of political theory, efforts to address the most basic question of society—how should people live together? That is also the question that animates almost all of my work, and it is the question that’s been central to my last three books. In one way or another, those books were my efforts to understand why we Americans so often seem to occupy different universes. (I really related to Barney Frank when he responded to a woman who characterized the Affordable Care Act as Obama’s “Nazi health care bill” by asking her “Madame, on what planet do you spend most of your time?”)

Much of what I’ve written over the past 15 years or so has revolved around one question: How do we live together? My very first book was “What’s a Nice Republican Girl Like Me Doing at the ACLU?” (That was written as the GOP was abandoning its traditional roots and getting more and more…whatever it is the party has become.) It was in that book that I first explored something I called then—and still call—“The American Idea.”

My fundamental premise is that America is more an idea than a place.

Ours was the first nation not to be based upon geography, ethnicity or conquest, but upon an Idea, a theory of social organization, what John Locke called a “social contract” and Todd Gitlin has called a “covenant.” That theory—that idea—was incorporated in our constituent documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. When you think about it, the American idea should make us uniquely situated to thrive in a world where trade and technology are making geography increasingly irrelevant; where travel, immigration and economics are forcing diversification of even the most insular societies, because it based citizenship on behavior rather than identity.

The American Idea reflected certain assumptions about human nature and accordingly, privileged certain values—values that ought to be more explicitly recognized, discussed and understood, because they provide the common ground for our citizenship and they define our public morality. Understanding them is fundamental to our ability to understand ourselves and to construct a civic and civil society.

Now, I realize that the founders of this nation didn’t all speak with one voice, or embrace a single worldview. All of our governing documents were the result of passionate argument, negotiation and eventual compromise. And as remarkable as the founders’ achievement was, as enduring as the bulk of their work has proven to be, the system they established wasn’t perfect, nor was it sufficient for all time. History and context matter—and you don’t get either by reading carefully selected portions of the constitutional text on the floor of the US House of Representatives or by attending one of Michelle Bachmann’s “Constitution classes.”

Take the issue of “original intent.” There are those who believe that the role of the courts is to identify the founders’ intent and mechanically apply it—nothing more. Such a view of the judicial function arguably misreads history. In any event, it’s impossible. Whose “original intent” are we supposed to apply? John Marshall’s? Thomas Jefferson’s? James Madison’s? And how are we to determine what that intent really was?

More to the point, constitutions are by their nature statements of basic principles to be applied to fact situations which may or may not be foreseeable at the time the principles are enunciated. Our inquiry, properly understood, must be to identify the principle or value the founders wanted to protect, and apply it to a rapidly changing world. The question isn’t: What did James Madison say about pornography on the internet? The question is: how do we apply this principle James Madison enunciated –the importance of protecting free expression from government censorship—to this new form of communication?

The great debates between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists were about the proper role of government. That debate continues today. While we have enlarged our notion of citizenship since the constitutional convention to include women, former slaves and non-landowners, the framework remains the same. The overarching issue remains where to strike the balance between state power and individual autonomy.

The issue, in other words, is: who decides? Who decides what book you read, what prayer you say, who you marry, whether you procreate, how you use your property? Who decides when the state may deprive you of your liberty? How do we balance government’s duty to exercise authority and enforce order against the individual’s right to be secure in his person and free in his conscience? The founders answered that question by carving out, in the Bill of Rights, things the government was forbidden to do. (As I tell my students, the Bill of Rights does not confer rights. We have those rights by virtue of being human. The Bill of Rights was meant to keep government from interfering with them.) Protection of individual liberty was an overriding value, to be circumscribed only when absolutely necessary.

Over the years, those individual rights have come under attack from both the Left and Right.  The Right’s argument is that the U.S. has gone too far toward individualism and individual liberties, to the detriment of authority and traditional morals. The Left’s theory is that we’ve gone too far toward individualism and individual autonomy, to the detriment of community and the rights of the majority. In both views, the good of the whole, as they define it, should take precedence over the rights of individuals.

Another way to think about this is to ask: what is the “common good”? And more importantly, who gets to decide what it is? What are the “rights” of the majority? How do we determine them? When we ask those questions, we immediately see that there are two very different answers possible. In a totally majoritarian system—the system too many of my students think we have—the rights of the majority at any given time are what the majority decides they are. In such a system, the only issue will be one of accuracy and definition: what shall constitute a majority for purposes of legitimizing the use of state power? How can we be certain the votes accurately reflect citizen sentiment? Who has the right to vote?

In a truly majoritarian system, voters would have the right to decide what books are printed and sold, which religious practices would be tolerated, how much authority the police could exercise, and so forth. The only limits to government’s power over individuals would be those sanctioned from time to time by the voters, and those limits could be changed at any time by a subsequent vote. A truly majoritarian system would certainly reflect “community values” at any given time. It would also impose those values on those who do not share them. Holders of minority opinions, dissenters from the prevailing wisdom, would have no recognized or enforceable right to be different.

Such a system is precisely what the founders feared: it’s what they meant by “tyranny of the majority.”

The second answer to the question of majority rights is the one chosen by the founders of our republic. In the system they bequeathed us, the rights of the majority are derivative of our individual liberties; the right to participate equally with one’s peers to make those decisions which are properly assigned to majority vote; the right to be protected from those who would threaten our physical safety or otherwise deprive us of social goods to which we are entitled; the right to have our agreements with each other enforced and our disputes mediated—all without favoritism or bias. And there is the right which Justice Louis Brandeis once called the greatest right conferred by a civilized society—the right to be left alone.

History provides us with plenty of examples of what happens when the common good, or the “good of the many,” is piously invoked to outweigh the rights of individuals. A paraphrase from George Orwell’s Animal Farm sums it up nicely: Everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others.

When people are ignorant of constitutional history, when they fail to understand that the central constitutional issue is the use and abuse of power, they confuse support for constitutional rights with support for unpopular uses of those rights. The issue is who decides what books you read—not the merits of the books you choose. An insistence on a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy is not the equivalent of a “pro-abortion” position—many women who oppose abortion nevertheless do not believe that government has the right to make that decision for individual women. An insistence on freedom of the press certainly doesn’t translate into approval of anything the press may choose to publish. A lawyer who represents a child molester is not “endorsing” child molestation. He or she is upholding the right of every citizen to the due process of law. (I was appalled during the recent campaign for Marion County Prosecutor by a Mark Massa commercial suggesting Terry Curry was unfit to be prosecutor because he had represented criminal defendants. That commercial, in my opinion, made Massa unfit to hold office!)

The central issue of civil liberties is the power of the state—or the majority—to compel our behaviors or infringe our personal liberties. When people don’t understand that, when they don’t understand when government is empowered to impose requirements and when it isn’t, when they don’t understand the most basic premises of our legal system, our public discourse is impoverished and ultimately unproductive.

Civic literacy requires an acquaintance with basic constitutional principles and values. It also requires an understanding of American history and the context of our constituent documents—an accurate understanding, not a Texas-Board-of-Education understanding.

In 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—it is more important than ever that Americans understand their history and their governing philosophy. Our constitutional values are ultimately all that Americans have in common.  It is critical that we teach them to our children.

All governments are human enterprises, and like all human enterprises, they will 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, precisely because this is a country based upon covenant. Americans do not 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. To put it another way, our ability to trust one another ultimately depends upon our ability to keep our governing structures true to our fundamental values, and 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 our divisions and debates pit powerful forces trying to rewrite our history and most basic rules against citizens who lack the wherewithal to enforce those rules, we undermine the American Idea and erode social trust.

At the end of the day, our diversity (however we want to define it) isn’t the problem. And that’s a good thing, because that bus has left the station; the reality of the 21st Century is that our diversity will only increase. The real issue is whether we can once again reinvigorate the American Idea and make it work in a brave new world characterized by nearly instantaneous communications, unprecedented human mobility, and the global challenges of climate change and international terrorism.  It has never been more important for citizens to understand the constitutional roots of American culture.

That brings me to my request—or maybe I should call it an invitation.

Scholars and educators have expressed concern over inadequacies in civic literacy and citizenship education for a very long time. Periodically, there have been efforts to increase requirements for civic and constitutional educational content, generally in government or “social studies” classes. Most recently, in 2003, the Alliance for Representative Democracy launched the Congressional Conference on Civic Education, and evidence indicates it did have a modest effect.  However, it followed the typical trajectory of these efforts, which has been an initial burst of enthusiasm followed by limited implementation.  The vast majority of new initiatives have had a very limited impact; worse, some states are now reducing social studies and civics requirements in order to focus on subjects tested under the No Child Left Behind Act.

I am currently working with four colleagues on a project to address these persistent failures. We represent five different disciplines—law, social work, religious studies, bioethics and education—because all of those disciplines are adversely affected by low civic literacy. We intend to determine

  • what programs and curricula have demonstrated effectiveness in producing civically-literate students; and
  • why previous efforts at reform have lacked staying power.

Our ultimate goal is to develop a set of recommendations for basic civic education that can be both implemented and sustained.

I don’t know the structure of the League of Women Voters, nor how you decide what causes to adopt and support. But I do know that there is no organization better situated to actually improve civic literacy in this country. You are national, you are respected, you are non-partisan, and you are credible. In short, you are precisely the sort of organization that should help spearhead this effort.

I don’t have the answers to our research questions yet, and I certainly didn’t come here today with a fully-formed plan or request. I’m just throwing this out in the hopes that we might be able to work together to rebuild the base of a functioning political system—one where our disagreements are about the proper application of a commonly understood history, rather than on revisionist fabrications or lunatic worldviews posted on the internet.

If this is something the League would be willing to explore, I offer my research team’s enthusiastic cooperation.

Paging Civics Teachers

Where are all the high-school civics teachers when you need them?

During the past few weeks, we have been treated to an absolute bonanza of constitutional ineptitude: we’ve had Dr. Laura explaining her departure from radio as an effort to get her First Amendment rights back; continuation of the ugly, ginned-up controversy over Muslims building a community center three blocks from Ground Zero; and an equally retrograde proposal to eliminate portions of the 14th Amendment, among other embarrassments.

Dr. Laura (whose doctorate, we should recall, is in physiology—not logic, and certainly not law) seems to equate the disapproval of her sponsors with denial of her First Amendment rights. Someone should gently explain to her that the First Amendment, like the rest of the Bill of Rights, is a limit on government action. It prevents the government from censoring her. Unfair as it may seem to her, her sponsors also have First Amendment rights—and in this case, they have evidently decided to exercise them by disavowing her message.

That’s the problem with those darn constitutional rights—people who disagree with us have them too.

Aside from the southern Congressman who questioned whether Islam is “really a religion,” those who oppose allowing Muslims to build a community center and mosque three blocks from Ground Zero have generally conceded that the Constitution gives them the right to do so. Instead, they have fallen back on what First Amendment lawyers call the “heckler’s veto” argument. The “heckler’s veto” was most prominently used in the 1950s, during the Civil Rights movement. When Martin Luther King would ask for a permit to make a speech in a public venue, the city or town would argue that allowing the speech was likely to cause a civil disturbance and thus the permit should be denied in order to protect the public’s safety. Courts weren’t receptive to the notion that some people’s rights should be held hostage to other people’s hostility; nevertheless, opponents of the mosque argue that it is “insensitive” and “offensive” to build near the neighborhood where the Twin Towers went down (and just down the street from the Pussycat Lounge strip club).

When we come to proposals to amend the 14th Amendment, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that some of our dimmer political actors have noticed that it exists. It wasn’t all that long ago that a Georgia governor denied that the Bill of Rights applied to the states—a rather clear signal that he hadn’t encountered this particular Amendment. On the other hand, there is something surreal about watching people who claim to revere the Constitution when their own rights are at issue blithely proposing to shred that document when other people are its beneficiaries.

It’s hard to know whether these folks are really constitutionally illiterate or simply playing cynical political games. As one pundit has wryly noted, there are two ways we can understand the meaning of the word “base” in the phrase “playing to the base.”