Is Low Civic Literacy a Wicked Problem?

In 1973, Horst W. J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber published an influential article on the nature of social problems. Titled “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” the article focused upon the difficulty of solving what they dubbed “Wicked Problems,” and triggered an ongoing scholarly discussion about the nature of such problems and the differences between efforts to craft social policies addressing them and the “tamer” and more linear approaches appropriate to the solution of scientific problems (Rittel and Webber, 1973).

As Rittel and Webber (1973) defined them, stubborn (“Wicked”) problems are those implicating value judgments and perceptions of equity. Given the pluralist nature of contemporary democratic societies, those values and perceptions will be heterogeneous, making even agreement on policy goals a contested exercise. Furthermore, wicked problems are by definition systemic, and efforts to address them will have “waves of repercussions that ripple through such systemic networks” (p. 156).

“One of the most intractable problems is that of defining problems (of knowing what distinguishes an observed condition from a desired condition) and of locating problems (finding where in the complex causal networks the trouble really lies). In turn, and equally intractable, is the problem of identifying the actions that might effectively narrow the gap between what-is and what-ought-to-be” (p. 159).

Rittel and Webber (1973) proceeded to identify ten characteristics of wicked problems, and subsequent scholarship has elaborated on them (Richey 2005, 2011; Weber and Khademian 2008; Conklin 2001). Indeed, a robust and widely diverse scholarly literature has developed in which the notion of problem “wickedness” has been applied to everything from ecological challenges and environmental degradation (Brennan 2004; McKinney and Harmon 2004; Frame 2008; Frame and Brown 2008; Rayner 2006), to business and manufacturing (Camillus 2008; Conklin 2005; Powell, Kopet and Smith-Doerr 1996), to democracy, citizenship and politics (Barabas, Jerit, Pollock and Rainey 2014, Mathews 2008; Chrislip and Larson 1994) to public administration and governance (Head and Alford 2013; Feldman and Khademian 2002; Kettl 2003, 2202; Bardach 2001; Evans 2000; Klijn and Koppenjan 2000; Agranoff and McGuire 1998) to general organizational theory (Kedia and Mukherji 1999; Susskind, McKearnan and Thomas-Larmer 1999; Behn 1998), among many others.

A scholarly literature particularly relevant to problem “wickedness” is network theory, which has grown significantly since the introduction of the concept of “wicked problems.” As Weber and Khademian have documented (2008), the study of networks has augmented, and arguably is replacing, prior scholarship focused upon hierarchies and markets. Networks have come to be seen as an effective means of addressing complex problems and achieving collective goals. (Peters 2001 Podolny and Page 1998; Kickert, Klijn and Kippenjan 1997; Powell, Kopet and Smith-Doerr 1996). Weber and Khademian define effectiveness in this context as collaborative capacity, improved policy performance, and accountability, and argue that addressing the special attributes of “wicked problems” requires the sorts of collaboration and knowledge sharing that networks make possible.

While the literature of network theory has seen a copious expansion, scholarship applying the concept of problem wickedness to education, and especially to citizenship education, has remained relatively sparse. Educators and educational philosophers have begun to investigate the intersection of growing complexity and the transmission of civic knowledge (Hipkins 2010; Kress 2008; Gilbert 2005; Boyd, Bolstad, Cameron, Ferral, Hipkins, DcDowall et al 2005; Westheimer and Kahne 2004) but none have as yet applied the lens of “wickedness” to the specific challenges of civic education.

In order to determine whether the transmission of civic knowledge is a wicked problem, and whether the stubbornly low levels of American civic literacy can properly be categorized as “wicked,” it is necessary to determine how many of the problems faced by civic educators match the characteristics of wickedness enumerated by Rittel and Webber.

A caveat is important here: most wicked problems will not exhibit all ten of wickedness’ defining characteristics. Scholars are in agreement, however, that the greater the number of such characteristics, the “wickeder” the problem. The elements of wicked problems, as Rittel and Webber catalogued them, are: no agreed-upon formulation/definition of the problem; no “stopping rule” (solutions can always get better); solutions will not be true or false, but rather good or bad; there is no immediate and no ultimate test of solutions; every solution is a “one-shot” because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error; there is no enumerable or exhaustively describable set of potential solutions; every wicked problem is essentially unique; every wicked problem is a symptom of another problem; discrepancies can be explained in numerous ways; and the planner (or problem solver) has no right to be wrong.

“So what is the problem that the term “wicked problem” addresses? The common sense approach to WPs is fairly straightforward: As stated above, WPs are about people – the most “complex adaptive systems” that we know of. They are subjective problems. Everything that has to do with people and society is ultimately subjective. Above all, WPs are about people as stakeholders: competing and cooperating, vying for position, willing to reflect, and to change their positions on the basis of this self-reflection. This is why such problems do not have stable problem formulations; do not have pre-defined solution concepts; and why their course of development cannot be predicted. This is also why attempting to causally model or simulate the paths of development of such problem complexes is often worse than useless” (Richey 2005).

Weber and Khademian (2008) offered a somewhat abridged description of the elements of wickedness, summarizing the more elaborate ten-characteristic typology offered by Rittel and Webber into three major dimensions: wicked problems are unstructured (their precise causes and effects are difficult to isolate, the problem-solving process is fluid, and there is little or no consensus on problem definition or solutions); they are cross-cutting (having multiple stakeholders with diverse perspectives, requiring trade-offs among competing values); and above all, relentless (there is no finish line).

Civic Literacy and Civic Skills


As used in this analysis, civic literacy refers to knowledge of America’s history, governing philosophy and structures. It is different in kind from the sort of “civic intelligence” addressed by Douglas Schuler and others (Schuler 2014) and indeed, would seem to be far more concrete than the social impairments that work against achievement of such civic intelligence.

At first blush, low civic literacy, defined as widespread ignorance of basic civic knowledge, would not seem to be a wicked problem. If people lack information about their history and government structures, if they lack the tools to understand the roots and/or nature of the issues they face, the solution seems simple enough: they should be educated, and provided with that information and those tools, preferably in school. It is only when we look more closely at the nature of the problem that we begin to understand the multiple ways in which the challenge presented by the deficit of civic knowledge may be wicked. To begin with, the educational process itself has multiple characteristics of wickedness.

For example, it’s often said that the education problem can’t be solved until the poverty problem is addressed. These two problems are intertwined not only with each other, but with many other social issues such as crime, child care, health care, and unemployment. These entangled problems are made even more complex because they are values-laden. It’s impossible for everyone to reach consensus about how they should be addressed. There is no right or wrong answer, and each attempted solution will give rise to other anticipated, unanticipated, and delayed wicked problems. Furthermore, each wicked problem can be considered a symptom of another wicked problem because of their interconnectedness. Wicked problems are never solved once and for all, just re-solved over and over again. Hence, the current state of affairs in education (McMahon, 2011).

When we focus upon education in service of civic participation, we encounter still other aspects of wickedness. Although there is significant debate about causation–about which comes first, lack of knowledge or lack of engagement– there is substantial evidence of the correlation between civic ignorance and civic apathy and disengagement (Delli Caprini, Keeter and Scott 1996; Levine 2011).

There is also ample research confirming the existence of what has been called a “civic deficit” (Delli Caprini, Keeter and Scott 1996; Galston 2001, 2004, 2007; Intercollegiate Studies Institute 2008, 2011; Schudson 2000; Torra & Novarro, 2008; Fleming 2012; Levine 2011). A recent blog post from the Center for Civic Literacy summarizes some of that research:

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 (Kennedy, 2015).

In What Way is Civic Literacy a “Wicked” Problem?


Existing research on civic knowledge confirms that deficits in civic literacy are real, but that research also displays the heterogeneous value commitments identified by Rittel and Webber. There is no agreement, for example, on the definition, causes or consequences of the problem. In some cases, there is disagreement about whether this lack of knowledge should even be considered a problem; a number of people dismiss the importance of content knowledge, asserting that cultural attitudes are more important. Others question whether low levels of political participation are really attributable to civic ignorance, suggesting that apathy and even satisfaction with the status quo are more likely to explain a lack of civic engagement (Dudley & Gitelson, 2002; Galston, 2004).

Among those who believe that lack of basic information is a genuine problem, there is no consensus on the content of the civic information with which a minimally-literate citizen should be familiar. American history? The Constitution? What about basic economic or scientific principles necessary to an understanding of current events (Kennedy, 2013)? And what about those current events? Should a civically-literate American know the names and partisan affiliations of at least high-ranking elected officials? The names and locations of countries with which we are at war? The identities of sitting Supreme Court Justices? Scholars are deeply divided over the value of such knowledge, with some dismissing it as trivia not reflective of or necessary to a genuine understanding of the operation of our democratic system, and others arguing that truly engaged or informed citizens will inevitably acquire such information.

Not only is there substantial disagreement on the nature of the information necessary to informed participation in the democratic process, Americans’ value heterogeneity challenges efforts to reach consensus on the meaning of even that content widely agreed to be an essential element of civic knowledge. This is especially true with respect to our basic legal structure. The Bill of Rights, in particular, is a statement of broad principles, and the proper application of many of those principles to new and emerging “facts on the ground” has historically been contested even by legal scholars. What has been called “constitutional competence” (Rosenbloom, 2000) is further challenged by partisans and outright propagandists who seek to exploit the inherently contestable nature of Constitutional language in order to further ideological or religious agendas. This means that even in areas where there is broad agreement about the sorts of basic civic knowledge citizenship requires, there is considerable dispute over the proper way to understand those principles and the way in which civics should be taught. In Oklahoma last year, for example, lawmakers threatened to defund Advanced Placement American history because they deemed the new curriculum, which emphasized critical thinking, insufficiently “pro American.”

Conservative critics attacked the new course guidelines, and charged that the increased inclusion of negative episodes constituted “rewriting American history” in ways that undercut (their version of) the purpose of teaching that history.

If we are judging civic competence by reference to participation rather than knowledge, what should count as adequate engagement? Voting in a Presidential election, but not a municipal one? Working with one’s neighbors to solve a problem? Attending a public hearing? Donating to or volunteering with a political campaign, or working with a nonprofit organization to solve a civic problem (a metric used in state-level Civic Health surveys)? Furthermore, in each of these cases, how do we assess the adequacy of engagement? Should voting and other political participation “count” more than donating to a cause or doing volunteer work for one’s church? Should the amount of the donation or the duration of the volunteer effort factor into the evaluation? What “grade” is to be deemed sufficient? What about clearly uninformed or destructive participation—say, membership in the Ku Klux Klan or in a “volunteer” militia patrolling the border?

As noted above, research does support the contention that civic knowledge and civic engagement are highly correlated (Delli Caprini et al., 1996; Milner, 2002), but the relative contribution of each is speculative, as is the question of causation. Are more knowledgeable citizens more likely to become civically involved, or does civic involvement lead to a more complete and accurate understanding of the way in which our democracy works (or doesn’t)?

If there is no agreement on the nature and extent of the deficit, there is even less on its causes. Critics of public education accuse schools and teachers of poor performance, of which civics is only a part; defenders point to the current emphasis on STEM subjects, No Child Left Behind, and the increasing conflation of education with job training as major reasons schools have little time for civics. Civics and social studies teachers note that the current emphasis on high-stakes testing inevitably means that teachers and students alike will emphasize those areas of the curriculum that are subject to testing; they point out that civics is rarely one of the areas tested. Sociologists and political scientists point to socio-economic factors, and note that the gaps in civic knowledge between poor children and those from more affluent families are similar to the gaps that characterize disparate performance levels in other subjects (Diemer, 2012).

Still other observers focus on the fragmentation of contemporary media, and its tendency to feed a popular culture that emphasizes celebrities and sports figures, rewards sensationalism, and increasingly lacks the resources to provide serious investigative reporting on matters of public concern. Recent research by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service (home to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, a pre-eminent resource for research on civic learning) has focused on the question whether and how the news media might impact broad democratic practices. Other explanations for low civic engagement include economic factors; observers note that low-income Americans are working increasing hours just to put food on their tables, and lack the time to participate in civic and political matters. Although such time constraints are undeniably real, however, it remains true that few of those Americans are motivated to devote what leisure time they do have to civic enterprises.

Further complicating the situation is the fact that all of these explanations, and many others that have been proposed, are interrelated. Economic inequality sends children to schools of very uneven quality. Our inability to agree on the content or methodology or institutional arrangements leading to effective public education produces very different results even in schools serving so-called “privileged” communities. The lack of a sound educational grounding drives media choices, and media outlets competing for “eyeballs” offer entertainment and (often) propaganda intended to appeal to increasingly segmented audiences—a problem exacerbated by the increasing use of sophisticated algorithms to deliver “relevant” information over the Internet (Pariser, 2011) and by America’s persistent thread of anti-intellectualism.

Wicked problems have multiple stakeholders representing multiple and frequently inconsistent values. This is certainly the case with civic literacy; stakeholders include the aforementioned public school teachers and administrators, education reform activists, lawyers, political pundits, elected officials and public managers at various governmental levels, journalists, and citizens working for particular policy outcomes or for redress of perceived grievances. Many of these stakeholders represent disciplines having specialized languages and professional terminologies, complicating communication. Further, value diversity means that solutions—or at least improvements—acceptable to some stakeholders will be unacceptable to others. In the Oklahoma example cited previously, stakeholders presumably agreed that “American Exceptionalism” should be taught, but they disagreed profoundly on its definition and importance.

Furthermore, as Rittel and Webber (1973) noted, professionals of various fields laying claim to superior knowledge or expertise can expect considerable resistance from members of the general public, or laity, who tend to be resentful of such claims and suspicious of “elites,” especially academic ones. This heterogeneity of stakeholders is further complicated by the structural relationships among them.

Civic literacy deficits exhibit three other elements of “wickedness”: there are no “stopping rules,” because the problem of a civically illiterate population cannot be definitively solved; solutions are unlikely to be true or false, only better or worse; and there is no immediate or ultimate test of a solution.

What to do

With “tame” problems, linear processes leading to recognizable solutions can be employed: one defines the problem, identifies potential solutions together with their strengths and weaknesses, and chooses the remedy that seems best. With efforts to improve civic literacy, however, proceeding in that fashion leads to what has been called “analysis paralysis,” repeated studies that simply confirm the widespread lack of civic knowledge. Stakeholders can’t act to address the problem until there is more information, but that information isn’t available until someone acts. In the case of civic literacy, analysis paralysis has resulted in a copious literature confirming the existence of a deficit and a less robust literature offering theoretical approaches to remedying that deficit, but considerably less research on actual programmatic efforts.

If civic literacy is a wicked problem, we have no choice but to act, to try different solutions that will help us to better understand the nature of the problem and evaluate the results of efforts to address it. This is not a risk-free strategy; as Ritchey (2005) has written, “every implemented solution is consequential. It leaves “traces” that cannot be undone…And every attempt to reverse a decision or correct for undesired consequences poses yet another set of wicked problems.” This is self-evidently true of any individual program or attempted intervention. However, a new approach to content delivery in a classroom, a new state standard for civics instruction, an effort to improve public understanding of local government or similar efforts can be immensely instructive—whether it succeeds or fails. It is here, I argue, that civic literacy differs from many other wicked problems and (arguably) becomes less wicked. Rittel (1973) notes that “One cannot build a freeway to see if it works.” But civic education is not a freeway; nor is it the design of a new car (an example used by Conklin). Proposed solutions need not exclude other potential solutions, need not require the expenditure of massive amounts of money. Pilot programs can be conceived and their results evaluated; those with promise can be adapted or replicated.

A central insight of Rittel and Webber (1973) was that substantially wicked problems can only be approached through an iterative process that sheds needed light on the nature of the problem at the same time as it is trying to improve the situation. The nature of the civic deficit allows for the use of a wide variety of approaches employing such a process.

In order to engage in this trial and error methodology, however, we must address the elements of wickedness that have led to the current analysis paralysis. At a minimum, stakeholders must work together to create, first, a shared and much more widespread and public understanding of the problem and its consequences; and second, a shared commitment to the broad goal of improving civic knowledge, all while recognizing the partial and tentative nature of that understanding and the high probability that the goalposts will move more than once.

Rittel and Webber’s (1973) original identification of wicked problems, and their enumeration of the thorny challenges such problems represent, was not intended to dissuade us from trying to solve social problems. It was not a counsel of surrender. It was an analytic tool that distinguished between different kinds of challenges, confirmed the contours and difficulties of certain of those challenges, and warned us away from obvious pitfalls.

If the literature on wicked problems confirms anything, it is that most social problems are wicked to a greater or lesser extent. Recognizing that fact does nor relieve us of the obligation to work for their (more-or-less) satisfactory resolution.


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  1. Come on, Sheila.

    Knowing much about so-called “civic literacy” is about as useful as knowing the service manual for a 1991 Rolls Royce. It’s useful to a very few people, but for most people, it’s useless knowledge, as you simply can’t do anything about it if you do know it.

    The American government is something run by the globalists, for the economic benefit of the globalists. Nothing the average American can do or say will change its course. One way or another, the government is going to do exactly as the people who own it want. If the elections don’t give them the results they want, the Supreme Court will.

    The people can save their time and effort following something enjoyable and more relevant, like the NFL.

    When this country ceased being a Republic and became a democracy, its course was fixed. The American government is now fully insulated from elected officials being able to make any meaningful change. So much of government is now conducted by unelected regulatory bodies. Voting will change nothing. I don’t know if there’s any way out.

  2. Here’s some “civic literacy” for you:

    ISIS was created by the United States and Israel to be a proxy army against Assad. ISIS is armed by the United States and Syria, and IDF officers hold high-ranking positions within ISIS.

    Russia has moved into Syria, and is kicking the behind of ISIS, thus the U.S. and Israel.

    Kogalymavia Flight 9268 crashed, killing 224 people. ISIS is taking credit for the crash.

    If America doesn’t do something to detach itself from the Zionist/globalist powers who own and run the country and withdraw from all conflict with Russia, China and other powers, there may not be a world or a country in which to worry about “civic literacy” or “wicked problems.”

  3. I readily admit to being “civic literacy” challenged; I do see it as a “wicked problem” and the source of what the Obama administration has faced and continues to face regarding Republican voters who repeatedly elect those who believe stoppage of all forward movement will resolve private, personal, intimate business of citizens it sees as government issues and problems. Those such as Boehner and Ryan who wield far too much power as Speaker of the House, the “good old boys club” on SCOTUS and the Comedy Central list of presidential nominee hopefuls we are confronted with. The entire GOP appears to be “civic literacy” challenged even more than this old high school dropout with a GED. I know enough to keep a copy of the Constitution of the United States, with all Amendments, handy…also keep my Bible next to it to check the context of Republican’s religious basis for their actions, inaction and what they believe is their rightful duty to pass recent laws. Contrary to the belief of a few of those who regularly comment on this blog; this country was established on the basis of and given the right to freedom OF religion which includes freedom FROM religion being forced on the many by the few.

  4. Now, for something different, as Monty Python used to say.

    The Wired Magazine Newsletter has reported a new survey by Wibbitz ( that tells us what we sort of suspected. It answers the question, “Where do the supporters of various candidates get their information?”

    In brief, Trump supporters get their data from clickbait. Carson’s supporters from Twitter. Sanders supporters read, about 15 articles a week. Clinton’s supporters get their news from everywhere.

    Three in five Republicans say they prefer to watch the news rather than read it. Among Democrats, 55 percent prefer to read.

    So, I guess when you advocate civic literacy, that’s being sort of on the Democrat side, but that is also being more democratic by default. This also explains why Republicans support Trump and Carson, but to put that in perspective, remember that if 39% of the public is Republican, that means about 20% support either Trump or Carson, the same percent that believe they were kidnapped by aliens and that the moon landing was faked. It’s no wonder that the RNC is nervous. I’d be nervous too, if I was in the back seat of car going 60 mph toward a wall, being driven by a crazy person.

  5. In engineering education there is recognition that some analyses are so complex that for practical reasons simplification is required. The caveat is that the simplification must result in an adequately precise solution.

    Without in any way challenging the level of detail and correctness of Sheila’s analysis I might propose a simplification.

    Everything done by humanity is rational at the individual level. What learning is about is evidence. The more learned one is the more considerations can be employed by rational processes and the more likely the results will be functional.

    Everything that we learn comes through our five senses. That information can roughly be categorized as educational, experiential and cultural.

    Experiential is common sense. If I do this that happens: always, sometimes, or almost never.

    Educational is understanding the experiential learning of others. If I write these words this communication takes place. Someone noticed that 2+2 always = 4. Someone experienced and wrote down the horrors of war. Etc.

    Culture is what we observe others like us doing or thinking in various situation. When he doesn’t get his way dad threatens people. Girls exhibit pleasure by showing all of their teeth, boys more likely laugh. My parents tithe. Etc.

    So to change society the considerations must be found in those three categories.

    So where are our limitations today? Unfortunately in the toughest to correct areas. Not education but experiential and cultural. Ouch!

    More children now grow up experiencing more entertainment and less real life.

    The culture that many children observe is more attuned to social things and less to important things like responsibility in general, challenging work, giving, overcoming adversity.

    Why? We don’t live challenging lives. There is little adversity around. We may work unpleasant jobs but not very challenging.

    Of course all of this is on the average not each and every one.

    A dilemma. Life’s too easy. At least it appears to many that way because our culture teaches us materialism and we have more material comfort than anyone ever has.

    One way for this to change would be if we lost all of of our material comfort like many are in the Middle East. But they are there and we are oceans away and it could never happen to us.

    Well, yes it could. And materialism isn’t life. Life’s better than that, more.

    Can we get away from here without losing what we have? Is this a church problem, a parenting problem, a society problem? Who’s outside of the problem and can lead us away from it?

    Culture is a human adaptation to environment. It changes necessarily slowly, but it reacts to environmental changes. It adapts.

    Climate change will be the same wake up call to us that the meteor in the Yucatan was to the dinosaurs. Except it was sudden and physical adaptation is slow. Culture can adapt at roughly the same speed as our climate can change. And, I would propose, will.

    We’ll see lots of materialism lost. We’ll see many of our neighbors needing help. We’ll experience the capability of science instead of only the fun of technology. We’ll experience regret. We’ll be humbled.

    We’ll be better if we survive.

  6. Stuart: Gore Vidal said

    “Half of the American people have never read a newspaper. Half never voted for President. One hopes it is the same half.”

  7. Gopper: a republic is a country without a monarch. Many republics are also democracies. The governed hire and fire the governors.

  8. As always, Sheila, you challenge one to think and to analyze. Today’s paper was excellent very thought provoking. Pete, your comments also caused me to further analyze and consider the idea of wicked problems. I agree with your statement that “The culture that many children observe is more attuned to social things and less to important things like responsibility in general, challenging work, giving, overcoming adversity.” I’d add that those children who live in poverty are more attuned to survival. They often consumed with the lack of food, shelter, health care and child care in their everyday lives. That being said, as a retired educator of 40 years, I must note that “civic literacy” has been pretty much eliminated from the school curriculum. Where once this was taught as history/civics and then later social studies in the elementary school on a daily basis it has been almost entirely eliminated from the curriculum since the passage of No Child Left Behind. Each year the goal to have students preform higher and higher on the tests or face penalties, censure, and even school closings made the stakes to emphasize teaching reading and math more “important” than teaching writing, social studies and science. (Somehow, those in “charge” failed to see the connection between all of these disciplines). As the pressure increased school boards and Administrators adopted additional (and very costly) tests administer 2 or 3 times a year to determine exactly what children “didn’t know” so that they could be taught that specific content material or skill in order to pass the state tests. Special “remediation/enrichment” classes were needed to teach the students the specific skills to be successful on the tests. This caused most elementary schools to barely teach social studies and science as there is just so much time in the school day. High Schools for the most part (especially those in lower socio-economic areas) dropped many history classes as well. If President Obama’s new initiative to spend less time on testing succeeds and is accepted, then perhaps schools can go back to teaching civic literacy/social studies and science once again, not to mention teaching children to think, evaluate, critique and synthesize. I do realize that this is just one small part of the entire puzzle, but over time it can help to eliminate the terrifying statistics, “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 (Kennedy, 2015).”
    My final comment is for Gopper, your comment, “Knowing much about so-called “civic literacy” is about as useful as knowing the service manual for a 1991 Rolls Royce. It’s useful to a very few people, but for most people, it’s useless knowledge, as you simply can’t do anything about it if you do know it.” is way off base. Knowledge is power and sadly there are some who want to deny that knowledge to the masses!

  9. America’s civil literacy problem is a national wicked problem. Climate change is a global wicked problem. Both are wicked because only a few have the education to understand the reality but many have to accept that truth before appropriate action will be taken. That acceptance is being blocked by people whose lives are negatively impacted by the reality who therefore both refuse to accept it and actively campaign to obscure it to others.

    In both situations the consequence of the wicked problem is the end of life as we know it and the imposition by reality of an environment less conducive to human progress.

    That reality puts those who are in a position to understand it in a moral and professional dilemma. Turning the ship to avoid the iceberg is necessary. The ship is compelled by huge forces to want to continue straight and at speed. What can those with the knowledge do to affect future history?

    I would propose that there is a huge body of knowledge accumulated by the scientists who understand climate change over the last, say, three decades about effective and ineffective approaches to turning the ship.

    A portion of it is science developed by people like Dan Kahan at Yale Law And John Cook at Queensland University in Australia about how the human mind processes input that is culturally threatening. In other words those who belong to a group that they observe reacts this way to news like that. It’s fascinating stuff.

    Climate scientists are finally making progress in turning the ship against the tide but the fact that the progress took 30 years to make rather than 5 has expensive consequences to all of us.

    Sheila is concerned that civic illiteracy threatens our ship of state with departure from the essentials for progress that we thought were built into our national DNA by decades of success.

    What can be done? We have some answers now courtesy of the scientists playing Paul Revere for our earth that has been gained from both successful and unsuccessful experiments in making huge cognitive changes among, well, everybody.

    It’s a book waiting to be written Sheila.

  10. Mary Kay: the most important job of humanity is to raise the next generation. We call the amateur aspects of that “parenting” and have always recognized that most parents are ill equipped by both education and time to elevate their progeny to the next level so we have a professional component called “education”.

    The explosion of knowledge that is ever increasing has stressed the education profession to its limits IMO.

    We need new educational paradigms that outperform the old by orders of magnitude.

    Yet the profession is very tradition bound. It has changed very little over my 73 years while the need has increased many fold.

    Time to start over.

    Another wicked problem.

  11. This is perhaps somewhat longer than many folks here have tolerance for but it’s a good historical perspective from climate science on why the problems is more than teaching; it’s also undoing what those who prioritize their interests over humanity’s erect in the way of progress.

  12. Thank you Sheila, for this meaty article; there is much here to digest and many trails to follow. Thank you Stuart for the interesting survey from wibbitz; their survey correctly identified me, although I heard or read that Carson’s followers were older white women: Do they tweet? I don’t. And thank you, Pete for your link; I am one who likes longer pieces.

  13. Just now noticed the post concerning civic literacy. I’ve often wondered why a group of Indiana lawyers haven’t jumped onto the Street Law initiative as have many bar associations in other States.

    I say this primarily because my older son is a high school social studies teacher in the Spartanburg (SC) District 5 School District and has taught one period of Street Law for 8 years. The credit earning Social Studies course Street Law provides the training, the curriculum, and the hands-on material that make the course a favorite elective of all students in South Carolina. It’s hugely successful, is sponsored by the SC Bar Association who provides the teacher training to at least one Social Studies teacher in each SC high school. My son got interested in the Street Law initiative while he was a student at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, VA.

    Street Law’s impact has been profound, but our beginnings were modest. Street Law began in 1972, when a small group of Georgetown University Law Center students developed an experimental curriculum to teach District of Columbia high school students about law and the legal system. Because of its practical nature, the course was called “Street Law.”

    Over time, the Street Law curriculum evolved from a binder of loose-leaf lesson plans to a range of programs and publications designed to enhance the teaching of practical law, crime prevention, conflict resolution, youth advocacy, and the fundamental principles of democracy. We’ve also expanded our reach internationally, bringing our expertise in program and curriculum development to democratizing nations around the world. Today, our myriad programs serve thousands of people every year, worldwide.

    Why is the Indiana Bar Association not actively involved in this successful program?

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