Lots of Questions Worth Pondering

This weekend, our new Center for Civic Literacy hosted the first annual meeting of its National Advisory Committee–scholars and educators from around the country who are focused upon civic education. Our goal  was to emerge from the meeting with a more focused research agenda: a better grasp of what we do and don’t know and a clearer idea of the most urgent unanswered questions about America’s “civic deficit.”

It will take me several weeks to absorb everything I heard, but here–in no particular order–are some of the questions and observations that struck me as particularly weighty during our various sessions.

  • Can we say with any assurance that more and better information changes attitudes and behaviors? Educators certainly hope so, and marketing professionals who research advertising tell us that the more informed a consumer is, the more resistant she is to misleading framing in sales pitches, but we don’t know the extent to which information has this effect in more value-laden venues.
  • How do we inculcate what used to be (quaintly) called civic virtue? If–as one participant observed–American citizens have largely been transformed into consumers, where does that leave old-fashioned notions of civic duty?
  • How do we explain to the general public that civic literacy and civic skills are not simply concerned with affairs of government? Indeed, how do we achieve some measure of consensus about what such literacy and skills include? What is the content–the basic, minimal information– a citizen of 21st Century America needs in order to understand and navigate his environment?
  • How is the teaching of civic information and skills informed by the concept of civic identity?
  • Should teaching students how to evaluate the mountains of information and misinformation supplied by the Internet be considered a civic skill?

Perhaps the most penetrating question came from an eminent professor of Social Work, who asked “To what end are we engaging in civic education? What is the desired outcome? If we were wildly, improbably successful, how would the world change?”

How, indeed?


  1. Back in the 60’s when I was in HS & University, there was also talk of how Corporations were to be good citizens as well. There was an ethic of aiding the city, state and country … to be a force for good as well as generating profits.
    In a recent story I saw that the US public donates more money per capita than in any other major country. Sadly, a lot of that goes to scam charities. BUT…it shows that we are still a people that WANTS to do right by our fellow man. Hopeful.

  2. I must add another old adage to the subject of this blog, “Waste not, want not.” Civic education does not require the IQ of a rocket scientist to understand; civic duties begin in the home at a basic level and should progress from that point. Getting the public to read and comprehend the vast amounts of information we are inundated with on a daily basis seems to have become a monumental task. Good luck!

  3. I feel compelled to ask a question and make a comment: Who was there and were they representative of who America is as a nation? And, please tell me someone answered the question posed by the “eminent professor of social work”

  4. Obviously, fifty people could not represent the diversity of America, but those in attendance focused substantially on that diversity–on the opportunity gap, and issues of power/powerlessness. And we did respond to the eminent professor’s question. In brief (and very few of us WERE brief, unfortunately!), if we were able to dramatically raise the level of civic literacy in America, the hypothesized result would be a national conversation within our constitutional culture. Not agreement or uniformity, but a conversation within a shared reality, with more concern about defining and defending the common good. In short, Americans would share a language.

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