Putting Our Money Where Our Mouths Are….

Today’s blog is a departure from my usual content.

As regular readers of this blog know, three years ago I received a grant to establish a Center for Civic Literacy at IUPUI. (You can find out much more about the Center by clicking through to its website.)

That initial grant has run out, and together with a small group of political and business leaders, I am engaged in fundraising to keep the Center alive. (What I have discovered during the past three years is that–although everyone agrees that civic ignorance is a problem–civic literacy is not a high priority for most potential donors.)

So today I am posting a recent “pitch” I have used (below), for two reasons: first, the readers of this blog often share really good ideas and perspectives that I hadn’t considered, and I welcome suggestions for how I might sharpen and improve the “case” for philanthropic funding; and second–and more shamelessly– to provide an online mechanism to support the Center with a tax-deductible donation by those who may be so inclined. (The Center appears in the drop-down menu.) (Feel free to share!!)

I’m grateful for your help–whichever form it takes!


Only 36 percent of Americans can name the three branches of government. Fewer than half of 12th grade students can describe the meaning of federalism. Only 35% of teenagers can identify “We the People” as the first three words of the Constitution. Fifty-eight percent of Americans can’t identify a single department in the United States Cabinet. Only 5% of high school seniors can identify checks on presidential power, only 43% could name the two major political parties, only 11% knew the length of a Senator’s term, and only 23% could name the first President of the United States.

In today’s media environment, these and other deficits in civic knowledge are too often filled with propaganda, internet “memes” and misdirection.

Productive civic debate requires shared understandings.  When citizens lack basic knowledge, or argue from different realities, we fail to clarify areas of dispute and leave the parties feeling unheard and angry. If I say this is a table and you say it’s a chair, we aren’t going to have a very constructive conversation about its use.

Indiana’s recent RFRA debate was an unfortunate and costly example of what I call “the civic deficit.” The arguments for RFRA’s passage–as well as some of the claims about its probable effects–displayed some very basic misunderstandings of what the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause protects.

It’s not an isolated example.

Essential civic knowledge goes beyond basic American history and the Constitution. If Americans don’t know what science is, we can’t debate the implications of climate change. If we don’t know the difference between the deficit and the debt, we can’t evaluate the merits of economic policy proposals. And we can’t keep our elected officials accountable if we don’t know anything about the Constitution to which they are supposed to be faithful.

Research shows a high correlation between civic knowledge and civic participation. The Center for Civic Literacy recently co-operated with the Indiana Bar Foundation on the most recent Civic Health Index for our state.

  • 5% of Hoosiers report working with neighbors to solve a community problem.  Indiana ranks 47th among the states.
  • 5% of us participate in associations or organizations. We rank 44th.
  • 62% of those who are eligible are registered to vote. We rank 37th.
  • In the last off-year election, as you may have heard, 39.4% voted, ranking Indiana dead last among the states.
  • Only 11% of Hoosiers report ever contacting a public official. We rank 30th.

The Center for Civic Literacy has spent its first three years researching the causes and consequences of civic ignorance, because you can’t prescribe remedies if you don’t understand the problem. More recently, in addition to this ongoing research, we are engaging in what academics call “translational research”—on-the-ground efforts in Indiana to see if we can’t turn things around and raise those civic health indicators.

We are co-operating with the Indiana Department of Education on an effort to recognize and encourage innovative approaches to the teaching of civics; planning a three-forum series in Indianapolis in advance of the upcoming municipal elections, called “Electing Our Future: What You Need to Know about Indianapolis Government in order to Cast an Informed Vote”; partnering with the Indiana Humanities Council to highlight the importance of civic literacy during Indiana’s Bicentennial celebration next year; and fielding a survey to measure Hoosiers’ civic knowledge and provide a baseline for measuring improvement, among several other efforts.

Maintaining a research center is expensive. Fielding a small survey costs 10,000. The annual cost for a graduate student working 25 hours a week is 24,000. Buying 25% of the time of the PPI senior researcher who serves as our project manager runs another 20,000-25,000 annually. Even when we are able to secure grants for specific projects, those “infrastructure” costs must be covered by operating funds.

With your help and support, we think we can improve informed civic participation in Indiana. But we can’t do it without you.




  1. The numbers are very disturbing. And I wish I knew something about funding research so I could offer ideas. When I try to think of organizations that would want to pay for that information, other than maybe teachers or grass-roots organizers (who don’t have the money), I get nothing. Most elected officials apparently don’t care because they can win the “democracy game” more easily with voters who don’t score high on civic literary.

  2. “What I have discovered during the past three years is that–although everyone agrees that civic ignorance is a problem–civic literacy is not a high priority for most potential donors.”

    Well, yeah. You’re hardly non-partisan or an antiseptic political instructor. The prevailing belief is likely that “civic literacy” is conterminous with Sheila’s political bent.

    If such a center is to exist, it should probably be under the Department of Political Science, as that department nominally attempts to approach the education of governance in absence of spin or coloration. Why, however, is it the duty of colleges and universities to engage in primary education?

  3. “Indiana’s recent RFRA debate was an unfortunate and costly example of what I call “the civic deficit.” The arguments for RFRA’s passage–as well as some of the claims about its probable effects–displayed some very basic misunderstandings of what the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause protects.”

    And right there you go. If “civic literacy” means supporting your invective against religious freedom, expect people to be suspicious of the likely purpose of the Center.

    1A “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;…”

    This Amendment only supports a state enacting protections of the free exercise of religion. It’s easily arguable that the past three decades have seen the free exercise of religion restrained, and such actions against religion do offend the First Amendment.

    You never expend a moment to stand in the shoes of a believer, to feel their sense of encroachment or repression, and we hear slurs like “debacle,” “clown car,” etc.

    A good job for you would be to work in the Clinton Presidential Center. You can do some education with a willing audience, and you can keep up your political advocacy.

  4. It is interesting to see the statistics on civic illiteracy. As a retired teacher, who taught for 33 years, I watched the erosion of our educational system. It has been a subtle but steady process throughout my career.
    Initially, our students became disenfranchised with the ” presentation” of facts. We were becoming an information society where anyone could gain immediate access to anything that was of interest to them. Unfortunately, the schools continued to pursue a course that was the standard for the Industrial Age- “assembly line”. Stubbornly holding on to the textbooks and the A, B, C grading scales.
    Although many tried to get the nation’s attention with alternative strategies, the education machine continued on. Soon our students began dropping out in numbers that were mind boggling. More resources were thrown at the problem with minimal results. As “reforms” of one kind or another took center stage, the different components of the curriculum began to drop out of the day.
    When No Child Left Behind was implemented, we saw the loss of geography, penmanship, civics, history, art, and music. In an effort to increase “literacy” in the U.S., all the “fluff” was stripped from the curriculum. What we were left with was the “basics”- reading and math.
    Now we are wondering why our students are so disconnected from the world which they must one day run.
    We need to repair our dysfunctional educational system. Students need to have real life experiences within the confines of the classroom to promote the understanding of our government and the other systems which comprise our world. Bring back “student government associations” and civic involvement on a massive scale. Teach children to read using history books rather than just fantasy literature. Use real problems to teach math so that students can connect with the world outside the classroom.
    When we make our education system an intergral part of our society, rather than a place to keep our children while we work, profound changes will occur.

  5. Wow, Gopper.

    I typically ignore your nescient blathering, but your display of complete ignorance today is simply beyond amazing! People like YOU are hurting our society and our country. You are a prime example of the idiots in our society that demand everyone bow down to your extreme religious dogma.

    You stupidly believe that everyone else (those of us who are intelligent) must allow you to enforce your religious beliefs on us! If only you and your ilk would read the New Testament and LEARN that Jesus NEVER taught or endorsed discrimination of any kind. YOU and your ilk are completely ignorant of the Christianity that you claim to know and follow. You and your kind continue to show your brazen ignorance on a daily basis.

    Oh, and don’t bother to try to slam me in one of your insolent responses that you are so well known for. I can’t figure out if you are a male or female – you continue to hide behind your generic name and that is a true sign of coward. I’m beginning to think that you might be one of the extremely religious right that is behind the RFRA Act.

  6. All very excellent points Margot Hogan. The No Child Left Behind enacted by Pres. G. W. Bush did so much damage.

  7. I guess if civic literacy is connected with Sheila’s political bent, that sure says a lot about the validity of Sheila’s political bent. People who know how the government works tend to be more progressive. The rest of the story should be obvious, but for Gopper’s sake, let’s spell it out: people who are not knowledgeable about civics–are more ignorant about how the government works and its purposes–tend to be more primitive in their view of government.

    And another obvious point: If students, and the general public, do not possess civic literacy, the republic is not going to function. It is the responsibility of education, one of the institutions responsible for the maintenance of the society, to teach civic literacy.

  8. Nancy; people like Gopper are not only hurting our society and our country, they are currently leading our society and our country via Congress. Thanks for your on target observations which will go over Gopper’s head; would get blocked by cement if they attempted to go in one ear and out the other.

  9. Sheila – It sounds like someone needs to ‘endow’ the civics center. I wish I had the funds to do that for you but the Center sounds like a real contribution to society.

    Hoosier high school students are now required to take 4 years of math but not civics. We had better understanding of civics when the math requirement was 2 years and civics was a requirement. As you’ve noted in previous columns, America has an over supply of mathematicians and scientists who can’t find employment in their fields. I enjoyed math in high school but don’t use the algebra and geometry enjoyed there. However, I use my civics knowledge every day. It would easier to restore civics as a requirement in high school if we could go back to a 2 year requirement in math. If kids want to go into math fields, they could still take calculus and other advanced math in high school, but it’s not necessary for everyone to do so.

    The emphasis on math and science has been forced by those who view education’s sole duty as preparation for jobs rather than also for life in the household and community. We are reaping what they have sown.

  10. Nancy, excellent point in your last paragraph. If you check out the state constitutions and the section that establishes education, the first paragraph lays out the understood purpose of education in that state. In most states, the explicit purpose is to educate people to be citizens. Aside from mentioning “agricultural improvement” (in the Indiana constitution), they don’t really talk about job training.

    While the Indiana constitution does not explicitly say the word “citizenship”, what it does say is close enough: “Knowledge and learning, general diffused throughout a community, being essential to the preservation of a free government…” You have to know something about how it works to be able to participate in it, so that is in the government’s interest.

  11. Gopper reminds us why simply falling back into the default, “everyone’s opinion has merit,” “we should listen to both sides of the story,” “we are all trying to make things better, we just have different ideas about how to do it” position can be a betrayal of our community. You don’t negotiate with someone who is 100% wrong, or you will end up with a solution that is 50% wrong. You don’t meet a fascist half way, because in the end 50% fascism inevitably leads to 100% fascism. The only answer for right minded people is to stand strongly against those who would give away what our ancestors (and fathers and sons) gave in blood to preserve – political freedom. Remember, sometimes dictators are elected first. We must stand against those who would use our free system to take away our freedoms.

  12. Is Gopper the best Conservatives can do on this blog? Jeez! What idiocy! Where are the intelligent and educated conservatives? Or are there none?

  13. Hey Goober er

    Hey Goober , sorry, Gooper, it is easily arguable that we see religious restraint if you choose to be closed minded but to be able to show proof of such restraint is very hard to do.

  14. Nancy, you mention Hoosier high school students are now required to take 4 years of math. Yuck, I had my fill of Math during Algebra. I did like Trigonometry since it seemed kind of practical like how tall is that building or radio tower.

    Perhaps curriculum could be something the Teachers Union could weigh on.

  15. I’m with you, Theresa. I think a responsible, informed conservative would be a fine contribution. This business of name-calling and evidence-free, careless talk is not, I sincerely hope, representative of responsible conservatives. Good arguments with facts is something we all need and respect. Is this their best punch?

    But unawareness, blissful ignorance and lack of self-reflection seems to be the order of the day. Today, on WFYI, they announced that the State Senate Education Chairman (Kruse) and House Education Chairman (Behning) are mystified that nobody wants to teach in Indiana’s public schools anymore and are asking for a study committee to determine just why that is. The WFYI web site story is followed by a series of commenters, most of whom are teachers, whose insight should eliminate the need for such a study.

    I sure would like to see the doorway where all these people park their brains.

    The story is at http://www.wfyi.org/news/articles/indiana-lawmakers-ask-for-study-on-cause-of-teacher-shortage

  16. Sheila, about your request for suggestions. This is one of those big national concern issues that seem to belong in one of those foundation grants. Maybe connected to the Annenberg Foundation or Gates, but people who have accumulated zillions are now looking for patriotic causes that will make this a better place to live. I wish I could give you a name. Maybe one of your political science people might have one or two suggestions. The State seems to have very little interest in civic literacy, and appears to be happy with ignorant voters vulnerable to simple, ideological answers. Just “bread and circuses”, at least for a few.

  17. While I am not able to donate much, please accept my contribution to civic literacy through the good auspices of the Center. I have made my donation on line and encourage others who regularly participate in the discussions generated by Sheila’s blog to support the Center for Civic Literacy.

  18. Theresa Bowers, when was the last time you heard a reasoned argument from a so-called conservative? The Republican agenda is inherently untruthful. The purpose of the GOP is to lower the costs of production. Pick any issue you like, and you will see that they will be on the side of the corporate/wealthy class (abortion reduces the labor force, legalizing guest workers would raise wages and taxes on cheating employers, regulations and taxes lower profits, reducing poverty means reducing the desperation of the workforce, etc.). To get votes from the 99% of their constituency who are not wealthy, they need to use race, religion, and other divisive issues as emotional levers. So the arguments we see from “conservatives” (really two groups – those susceptible to the emotional levers and those employing them) do not stand up to reason because they are inherently intellectually dishonest.

  19. I would add that Sheila’s efforts toward eduction leading to civic engagement will of course be opposed by Republicans because an educated, engaged population would understand that the primary conflict in politics is capital vs. labor. You can vote R (capital exploits labor) or D (labor exploits capital), but that must remain a secret because 95% of us are labor and if we were rational we would vote for some sort of socialist democracy, well to the left of the Democrats.

  20. Gopper says: “You never expend a moment to stand in the shoes of a believer.”

    Consider the breathtaking assumptions in that one thought. Yet Gopper would be hard-pressed to identify a specific instance of the “encroachment or repression” he says these believers are encountering that violate their First Amendment rights.

    I believe the only encroachment or repression they are encountering is toward their perceived right to discriminate against *certain* people.

    Again, Gopper, I am sorry for whatever has happened to you that compels you to see the world as you do, with a closed mind and closed heart. Yet you are constantly certainty that you alone are correct. It’s sad.

  21. Almost 50 years ago a talkative gentleman settled into the seat next to me on a hedge hopper flight through Michigan to O’Hare and told me about his life. Arkansas, cotton sharecroppers, hard work for survival results, left home, traveled, ended up in Michigan painting barns. Hated painting barns. Elected by his family to go to California to accompany his brother’s body back for burial. Scared.

    When we got to O’Hare the size of his eyes told me that he had no idea and no clues. Illiterate.

    In exchange for the entertainment I got him on his way. Easy for me, impossible for him.

    Then, reading and writing illiteracy was the standard test for inadequate schooling. Obviously he had survived despite failing that test.

    Since then what mankind knows has increased about 50 times (http://www.industrytap.com/knowledge-doubling-every-12-months-soon-to-be-every-12-hours/3950). Soon they say it will double twice a day.

    It seems likely to me that life might require a relatively constant though small percentage of the knowledge of any times. So during my life from that memorable flight to now just to keep up I would have had to have learned fifty times more than I knew then. Believe me that is not likely despite what I perceive as above average effort.

    Sheila and I volley here between the relative importance of civic versus scientific literacy. Others could add the danger of illiteracy in other topics. It occurs to me that the big issue is education in general and our failure to keep up with the demand. A systemic failure not attributable to any of the specifics (teachers, unions, pay, entertainment media, oligarchy, advertising, college costs, materialism, politics, government, tin foil hats, religion, cognitive capacity, laziness, funding, libraries, etc.) or topics but all of them.

    Tough row to hoe my illiterate friend would have opined.

    Yes. But compared to just surviving ignorance, perhaps a sign of progress not despair.

    We need to wipe the cultural slate clean and begin anew. Address the how’s and when’s and who’s and why’s and where’s.

    We can, ignorant though we be. Will we?

  22. Gopper. Again. The Constitution is not about you. It doesn’t deal with your rights which are a complete abstraction. It deals with the specific responsibilities and limitations of US government.

    Worship who, how, where, when, what you want. Expect everyone else here to as well.

    Just don’t break other laws doing it. They exist to protect others from you not to facilitate the imposition of your beliefs on them.

  23. Reppog, well said. Teaching is different than sharing one’s opinion. That’s indoctrinating. What we know that’s certain is well documented. What we wish was true is also. That’s why we invented the words “fiction” and “non-fiction”.

    Teachers teach non-fiction. Preachers preach fiction.

  24. @Reppog: You are welcome to use the name I dreamed up for that backward person who spews useless words. I can only hope that you are not like him. One of him is more than enough! Margaret and Helen (love those two!) had a perfect description of those ‘debaters’ (if you can call them that, or even call what they’re about to do a debate). Margaret and Helen says they’re ‘all hat and no cattle’. Not a teacupful of civic literacy among them.

    I rather think that they are holdovers from the Howdy Doody Show of my childhood days: There’s Flub-a-Dub, Dilly Dally, Chief Thunder Thud, and Mister Bluster, to name but a few.

    Reminder: Be sure to donate to the Center for Civic Literacy. Every dollar counts! If you caught the embarrassing stats and low percentages, you KNOW there’s no place to go but up!

  25. “The Constitution is not about you.”

    Talk about someone who needs a remedial class in civic literacy.

  26. Like JD mentioned earlier, I made my Online donation to the Center for Civic Literacy.

    I’ll not bore you or other posters with my opinions at this point; moreover, I figure my monetary donation is more important than my words. Talk is cheap. BSH

  27. Gopper, it’s clear why you are stuck where you are. You believe that you already know it all.

    Try reading the Constitution as though I’m right. You’ll see that it makes much more sense then reading it as though it has something to do with you.

    Consider the word “inalienable”. Then think of all of the people in the world who in fact cannot enjoy those rights.

    That’s why “rights” are abstract whereby the Constitution has to be specific.

    It is as the by-laws of government. It’s not as a statement about individuals.

  28. Hi Nancy, as a conservative I don’t often see eye to eye with you. But, I read your blog to educate myself as to other viewpoints on political topics. I like to learn. The statistics you quote are alarming. And, I do not agree with that Gopper person. RFRA was a disaster. But, he did bring up a point that I wondered about in regards to how you plan to teach/share knowledge in a bi-partisan manner. I am not saying the organization wouldn’t, but you do have a personal reputation as a rather vociferous liberal. How would I know, from the literature the group is using to ask for funding, that the teaching will be done in a balanced manner?

  29. I’d start each paragraph with a real-life example of a person who needed some kind of answer.

  30. I just read the rest of the comments. Nancy Pappas is right, but I don’t think we can blame other areas in the state curriculum for overloading required courses. Ending a requirement for civics must be seen as very deliberate. If we don’t know our history and we don’t know our rights and responsibilities, we are apathetic or easily led. Both spell disaster for democracy.

  31. I’ve often wondered if civic literacy went out with the draft. Anyone who has a concrete stake in the decisions made by the government are more likely to participate in a meaningful way. A volunteer army, a press owned by corporate interests, and an uneducated, ambivalent public creates an environment for all manner of abuses to go unchecked.

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