Anyone who regularly reads this blog knows that I’m more or less obsessed by what Americans–ordinary citizens and elected officials alike–don’t know about our nation’s history, founding documents and legal system.
To reiterate my thesis: 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 a covenant; they are ultimately all that Americans have in common.
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, upon what I have elsewhere called the American Idea. 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 and work together 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.
That brings me to an announcement and a 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 several of my colleagues on a new project: the establishment of a Center on Civic Literacy at IUPUI. We just received funding for our first three years, so this is a brand-new initiative. My colleagues and I represent different disciplines—law, business, social work, religious studies, bioethics and education—because we are painfully aware that all of our disciplines are adversely affected by low civic literacy. The Center will offer a clearinghouse for research, and will publish a peer-reviewed journal; we also intend to conduct original research on a large number of questions: we want to identify programs and curricula that have demonstrated effectiveness in producing civically-literate students; we want to know why previous efforts at reform have lacked staying power. We want to investigate the theorized consequences of civic ignorance. And we want to develop a set of recommendations for basic civic education that can be both implemented and sustained.
One of our first projects is something we are calling “The Civic Challenge.” Indiana will celebrate the bicentennial of the state constitution in 2016. What better way to mark the occasion than with a two-year Civic Challenge, in which the entire community engages in a conversation about the U.S. and Indiana Constitutions? The idea is that every organization we can enlist will use their program years 2015 and 2016 to focus on the Constitution and issues of Constitutional literacy. I see it as sort of a “One community, one book” project on steroids.
Even though we have barely begun, a number of organizations are already on board: the Indianapolis-Marion County Library system, the Indiana Historical Society, the Indiana Humanities Council, Phoenix Theater and the IRT, the League of Women Voters, the Bar Foundation…and many others. We want to make this a high-profile, community-wide, fun project. (It has even been suggested that we enlist sports bars willing to focus their trivia contests on Constitutional rather than sports trivia.) We plan a web site, a Facebook page…well, you get the idea. The hope is to engage the whole community—left, right and center, religious and secular, immigrant and native born, minority and majority–everybody we can corral.
We plan to administer a survey to Indianapolis citizens before we begin the Civic Challenge, and again when it concludes, to see if we have managed to “raise the bar.” If we have, we will challenge other cities to do the same.
We are in the very early planning stages. If this first project is to be successful, we need good ideas for organizations, programs, contests..in short, we need people willing to be involved with the effort. That’s my invitation. If you are interested in knowing more, you can contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow our progress on this blog.
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 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 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.
I hope you’ll agree—and participate in the civic challenge!