Join the (Civic) Deficit Hawks

Several days ago, I referenced the first issue of The Journal of Civic Literacy. 

The introductory essay by former Supreme Court Justice David Souter really laid out the reason for both the Journal and the Center for Civic Literacy. Souter shared his concern that– without an understanding of the fundamentals–constitutional values will make no sense to people, because they have no context for them, no framework within which to understand them. And after listing the numerous influences that divide and polarize Americans, he wrote:

 “These are conditions, historical and contemporary, that drive us apart and tend to disunite us. What have we got pulling on the other side? By and large, what we have pulling on the other side is an adherence to an American Constitutional system… The American Constitution is not simply a blueprint for structure, though it is that. It is not merely a Bill of Rights, though it is that, too. It is in essence, a value system… We need to teach that we have a value system, and the one common value system that we can claim to have in the United States is the constitutional value system: a value system that identifies the legitimate objects of power, the importance ofdistributing power, and the need to limit power by a shared and enforceable conception of human worth.

That value system is the counterpoise to the divisive tendencies that are so strong today, and civic ignorance is its enemy. It is beyond me how anyone can assume that our system of constitutional values is going to survive in the current divisive atmosphere while being unknown to the majority of the people of the United States. It is only in the common acceptance of that value system that at the end of the day, nomatter what we are fighting about, no matter what the vote is in Congress or the State House or the townmeeting, we will still understand that something holds us together.”

That danger–that Americans will increasingly fracture into interest groups and contending constituencies, that we will increasingly lose the “unum” in the maelstrom of our “pluribus”– will be the focus of the Center for Civic Literacy’s upcoming National Conference on August 22-24 in downtown Indianapolis. The (somewhat ungainly) title of the conference is “Connecting the Dots: The Impact of Civic Literacy Gaps on Democracy, the Economy and Society, and Charting a Path Forward.”

We want to move the conversation about how to address our civic deficit away from a single-minded focus on classroom and curriculum—important as those are—to a consideration of the multiple other ways in which public ignorance of basic history, government, economics and science are impeding America’s ability to achieve even our most widely-held political, economic and social goals.

We also hope to go beyond the usual hand-wringing, and consider our options for improving the situation.

The program will open with a welcome from former Indiana Supreme Court Justice Ted Boehm, who chairs the Center’s National Advisory Committee, and will feature presentations from such nationally-known figures as Ted McConnell, Executive Director of the Civic Mission of the Schools Campaign, David Schultz, election law expert and Professor at Hamline University, Dallas Dishman, Executive Director of the Geffen Foundation, and Kim McLauren, Director of the Brennan Constitutional Literacy Foundation, among many others. (Even yours truly.)

Attendance at last year’s conference was limited to members of our National Advisory Committee. This year, we have opened it to members of the general public who may be interested, although space considerations limit the number of people we can accommodate. (Registration information is here.)

I hope at least some of you who follow this blog will deliberate with us, and join the ranks of the civic deficit hawks. We need all the help we can get.


  1. I admit I find much of the Constitution and the Amendments confusing, unclear and open to interpretation. Rather like loopholes in criminal laws that let criminals back on our streets too early to seek out more victims. The Constitution and Amendments affect all residents of this country; those criminal loopholes are at the local level. Both can be used to protect the wrong element with far-reaching effects. The fact that this “conservative” SCOTUS is allowed to rule in favor of their views, values, beliefs and spout Bible verses and misquote the Amendments to hide behind proves they have lost the sense of justice SCOTUS is supposed to provide. They should NOT be appointed for life; they all seem to live long past their ability to leave their personal interpretation of civics and civil rights in the past where they belong. Loopholes! We also need to, as with all governmental issues, FOLLOW THE MONEY!

  2. I don’t have data, but my sense is that civic illiteracy has been part of the American electorate ever since the beginning. I have no idea if it’s worse or better now. What I’m pretty sure of though is that its empowered.

    What better group to appeal to through mass media when you have been shown to be blatantly incompetent at governance or if you have an agenda contrary to good governance.

    While I’m very much for any effort to reduce it, I’m also sure that the ultimate restoration of functional government rests in the hands of democracy and the wisdom of the majority who will not be fooled by the puppet show.

    Can we always depend on the gullible to remain a minority? If they exceed that we will have lost our right to freedom.

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