What To Do, What To Do…

I’ve told this story before, but it bears repeating.

I teach my law and public policy classes through a constitutional “lens,” because I am convinced that students must understand America’s fundamental legal framework and philosophy if they are to approach policy proposals with the necessary analytic tools.

I often introduce the Free Speech provisions of the First Amendment with a purposely silly question: “What did James Madison think about porn on the Internet?” Usually, the student I’ve asked will laugh and respond that Madison never encountered the Internet; that then allows us to discuss the expressive values Madison and other Founders were trying to protect, and the ways in which modern courts attempt to protect those values in a world that the Founders could never have envisioned.

But several years ago, when I asked a student that question, she looked at me blankly and said “Who’s James Madison?”

That experience–unfortunately, not an outlier–led to the establishment of the Center for Civic Literacy at IUPUI, (CCL) and research to determine how much Americans really know–or don’t– about the country’s history, economy and legal system, and the political and social consequences of low levels of civic knowledge.

If anyone doubts the corrosive effect of civic ignorance, I suggest watching this year’s political campaigns.

There is clearly little we can do that would immediately improve the abysmal state of public discourse as it is practiced today, but in addition to research into the causes and consequences of civic ignorance, CCL has been working with the League of Women Voters and the Indiana Bar Foundation, among others, to produce materials that we hope will help address the issue going forward.

The Center and the Bar Foundation have published a book called “Giving Civics a Sporting Chance.” The book points to the pervasive social and cultural supports that reward knowledge of sporting events and trivia, and makes the argument that we need to institute similar mechanisms that would reward and increase civic knowledge.

Young Americans who can tell you who threw out the winning pitch in the 1939 World Series are capable of answering equally obscure questions about the Articles of Confederation, but American culture privileges sports knowledge over civic literacy. The book suggests a number of mechanisms for bringing civics “into the sunlight”–from relatively “do-able” measures like increasing participation in the excellent “We the People” curriculum and competition, to “wouldn’t it be wonderful” suggestions for a new GI Bill that would reduce student debt while increasing civic information and engagement.

Information about the book’s availability will be posted to the Center’s website shortly.

Another publication–originally an ebook, but just this month available in paperback--is a mere 36 pages of essential civic information. Titled Talking Politics? What You Need to Know Before Opening Your Mouth, it includes “What everyone should know about the Constitution and American legal system,” “What everyone should know about the American economic system,” “What everyone should know about science,” and “What everyone should know about politics.”

Obviously, all of those subjects cannot be comprehensively covered in 36 pages, but the book provides basic facts and settled definitions that can allow people to argue for their policy preferences more productively and convincingly.

I encourage readers of this blog to examine these two products, and if you find them useful–and I think you will–disseminate them broadly. Discuss the recommendations in “Giving Civics a Sporting Chance”with school curriculum officials. Read Talking Politics in your book club. Whatever.

I think thoughtful Americans of every party and political philosophy will agree that–whatever else America’s current election campaign may signify–the nomination of Donald Trump by a major party could only occur in a country where significant numbers of citizens have no understanding of the way their nation’s government works, or the rules that constrain elected officials.

That nomination should be a wake-up call.


  1. Most states have a High School Civics requirement, but it’s been so thoroughly watered down as to be almost useless. I can recall covering the Bill of Rights & the organization of Congress, but I’m sure we left out the other 17 amendments. Also, on a day-to-day basis the organization of the executive branch and of the state government is most important, but I can’t say for sure that we discussed that, though we must have to some extent.

    This literacy training really needs to start in grammar school & be reinforced every year, otherwise there won’t be any retention.

  2. In todays STAR, Our Reverend Pence says the STATES should be in charge of civil rights issues. Back to “States Rights” I guess. Can someone get the Rev into a civics class?

  3. Sheila, I purchased your e-book after you mentioned it in your blog awhile back. I have read it and use it as a reference tool. It is a wonderful and concise source for knowledge that should be considered to be essential for every citizen.

    Thank you for your dedication to teaching your students and anyone else who is interested in learning more about our legal, economic and political systems!

  4. The current presidential and state level elections clearly proves the lack of civic knowledge and awareness of the general public. At age 79 I am still learning almost daily how much I do NOT know. The GOP is using that ignorance of simple Constitutional facts to force Donald Trump – and Mike Pence – on the country to further their own avarice, greed, racism and bigotry against entire groups of people. Had the majority of voters been aware of our civic and human rights, they would have voted their conscience (awareness and support of the rights of all) vs. their own selfish reasons for electing the current do-nothing Congress to “stop the colored guy”.

    I find it sad and deeply disturbing that the Center for Civic Literacy is NEEDED at the college level and grateful that Sheila Kennedy and others established the CCL – better late than never but is IUPUI the only college level institution offering this benefit? Of course there is also reason for sadness and to be deeply disturbed regarding the number of semi-literate students entering colleges and universities after being passed along through elementary and high school levels of education in this country. “What To Do, What To Do…” should have started long ago.

  5. patmcc,

    If Pence could get the states to have control of civil rights he could then easily avoid the nuisance of federal laws that protect citizens without his approval. That would enable him and others like him to basically have complete control over all citizens.

    Silly you (tongue in cheek)

  6. Sheila,

    Can you recommend a good source for purchasing a copy of the Constitution and Ammendments that is published in a handy booklet form?

    Many thanks if you can.

  7. I am not in favor of “literacy” tests for voters. But it seems to me that every candidate for public office should be able to pass the same exam we ask immigrants to pass when they become citizens. It would be even better if they understood why the Articles of Confederation didn’t work and had to be replaced with the Constitution, which gave more power to the central government.

  8. The one civics lesson I can recall vividly from my youth in the 1970″s was the “School House Rock” lessons from “I’m just a bill” and “We the people”. Two entertaining songs that were easy to remember. For those unfamiliar, “School House Rock” was a series of educational cartoons with info set to a catchy tune. Laugh if you want, but I can still recite the preamble to the Constitution and I remember the many steps involved in passing legislation.

  9. I often try to figure out why I paid attention to this stuff in my youth while others did not. I have no answer. I loved everything about politics and government from an early age. It did not come from my parents or other close relative directly. Somehow it was instilled in me that it mattered. But it is clear that by the time high school government classes rolled around, it was too late. So is the more important question NOT WHAT do you need to know but rather WHEN do you need to know it????

  10. I received my free pocket sized copy of the Constitution when I donated to the ACLU. I refer to it frequently.

    In Leonard Pitt’s column today, he talked about a new school book being considered by the Texas Board of Education. Apparently it is a treasure trove of mis-information about Mexico and Mexicans. What does that have to do with civic literacy? Consider that the Texas Board of Education controls a lot of textbook content throughout the country. Once they have approved a book, it becomes a standard for education throughout Texas and in much of the rest of the country, as well. The people who constitute a majority of that board are a microcosm of what’s wrong with America today. If a fact doesn’t support their belief, out it goes.

    We need to find ways to engage kids in civics early on. We have to combat the power of the ultra-conservatives who control decisions about what gets taught.

  11. FYI
    Talking Politics is also available for Kindle. I just bought it for $3.79 on Amazon and am looking forward to reading it

  12. Peggy; would working to stop or prevent bullying in schools be one good place to start? One of my grandsons was bullied due to a disability, his brother was bullied for being his brother. Even though a meeting was held with teachers, principal, social worker and Mom, nothing was done to stop the bullying. This happened in two elementary schools; one public and one private. Both boys had the civil right to a safe educational setting but were denied. They are now home-schooled and doing great but still being denied their civic rights under our laws.

    My granddaughter stood up to bullies at Howe High school, she lived across the street and couldn’t get away from the bullies by going home. School police were often called for these disturbances but did nothing to stop the fights. She transferred to another high school and again stood up to bullies who, in front of teachers, bullied gays, Blacks and Hispanics. Bullies believe they are the only ones with rights; the right of full control has been taken from teacher’s hands so it continues and often escalates to neighborhood gangs who believe they have all the rights and victims have none.

    The murder rate in Indianapolis, now at 100 unless I missed one or three the past two days, didn’t start at this level. It began at young ages when limits were not placed on students at home or in schools. Limits are part of civic rights; our civic rights end when we infringe on, prevent or overpower the rights of others. There is much more to “Civic Literacy” than knowing how our government works and our relationship to it. It is tied to good parenting in homes before children begin their education; but, good parenting is – or should be – based on understanding the rights of ALL. A long ago memory just popped up; moving into a new home in a new subdivision, I took my two year old son next door to meet the neighbor with a three year old daughter. My son picked up one of her toys; the mother said, “It’s your toy, take it away from him.” The three year old’s civic right to her possession but crappy parenting which escalated to the mother rearing three bullying, racist, bigoted children who became adults with no limits or understanding that other people have rights…civic and human.

  13. The good news is that the Internet offers everything there is to know about everything there is to know.

    The bad news is that half of it is wrong.

    I consider that that good vastly outweighs that bad but to me using it becomes an intellectual curiosity game.

    Find what’s right. Sort the wheat from the chaff. Find the needle in the haystack.

    But, I have the time and curiosity to do that.

    If everybody was also curious, and spent the time now wasted watching TV, I think that the issue that Sheila brings up, plus the one that I keep bringing up, science literacy, could be at least dented.

    But all of that will not happen until and unless there is cultural value placed on education, on knowing.

  14. Pete, to answer your question about why people watch “reality” TV instead of PBS, whenever a medium actually tries to present real information and analysis, it’s “part of the liberal media” and declared dangerous. Washington Post? Liberal. New York Times? Liberal. NPR? Liberal. Pretty soon, all that’s left and cleared are Fox News and Breitbart. And what do we know from the research about Fox News? People are less informed ( entering or leaving the Fox News experience) than people who watch almost anything else. That civic ignorance is such a problem should be no surprise. Easy to wave a flag. A little more challenging to become educated.

  15. When I attended elementary school and junior high school, I had an unending string of incredibly boring history teachers. My parents were just plain, ordinary folks who had little interest in history, so history was not a subject that was discussed at home. Not until I attended Butler University did I have a teacher who knew how to make history interesting.

    I married a young lady who was a straight A student. Her elementary school teachers were not a whole lot better than mine. However, her father (who did not even graduate from high school) was a lover of history and loved to tell his daughter all kinds of historical stuff and political stuff. And she loved it.

    I was born and raised a Republican, but I got over it. John F. Kennedy introduced me to wit and humor … and I surrendered.

    A number of Republicans have been heard claiming that Donald Trump reminds them of Ronald Reagan. Bull feathers. Ronald Reagan was witty and had a good sense of humor. Trump has displayed neither of those qualities at any place or at any time.

    In my opinion, wit and humor should be the major tools to use in all elementary school history classes. Let the students feel warm and fuzzy about our nation’s historical stars.

  16. To me, PBS shows are fascinating, and reality shows are sometimes a little amusing. But I was gifted by genetics, random chance, and loving parents with a good brain. Others, not so much. Educating a rock is a disappointing exercise. Are we seeing Idiocracy happen before our eyes? As much as we despise the evil of eugenics and similar thinking, is it not clear that when dumb people have lots of babies and smart people do not, we end up with more dumb people? Kids who are not curious are not going learn about civics and are going to be ignorant adults, make poor life choices, experience poverty and other negative consequences, and ultimately be susceptible to the arguments of demagogues. Perhaps our problem is too much democracy.

  17. As with computing, the output is only as good as the person doing the inputing. Will a teacher’s political beliefs get in the way of disseminating facts or determine what they want to be true and therefore “teach”? Like in science, there are facts and unfortunately some of our fellow countrymen – including Trump – think they can just make it up as they go in order to serve their own selfish desires.

  18. JoAnn, concerning bullying I have always thought bullys are made not born. The bully learns might makes right at a very young age.

    I recently read an article – “Clearly, We Have A Delusional Democracy” by Joel S. Hirschhorn. >> A two-party duopoly serving the rich and powerful, corporate contributors and many special interests, but not the ordinary, general public is what we have had for a long time.

    You can have all the civic literacy courses, seminars, etc., that you want. Facts are since the founding of our country the 1% have clearly been in charge. The voting franchise has expanded since Madison or Jefferson’s day, but who controls it has not changed – that is the 1%.

    Think of it like this. You turn on your computer and expect it to work. It does function but malware has infected your computer. Your computer is high jacked. Our political system has been like wise infected by malware, commonly known campaign contributions, lobbyists, and PACs, and Super PACs.

    There is an interesting and long article in today’s Guardian on Scott Walker’s recall election in Wisconsin. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/ng-interactive/2016/sep/14/john-doe-files-scott-walker-corporate-cash-american-politics

    Kate Doner ( real person – no pun intended) was Walker’s main fund raiser, offered this advice on how to raise money – Her advice was bold and to the point. “Corporations,” she said. “Go heavy after them to give.” She continued: “Take Koch’s money. Get on a plane to Vegas and sit down with Sheldon Adelson. Ask for $1m now.”

    Donald Trump cut through all the crap so to speak – Donald Trump went further, brazenly using himself as an example of a billionaire who has put politicians in his pocket. “When you give to them,” he said in a confessional tone during a televised Republican debate in the run-up to the primaries, “they do whatever the hell you want them to do.”

    The Trumpet clearly spoke of what he knew to be true about American Politics, which is not found in text book on Civics.

  19. Louie, while what you report sounds nefarious (and it is), basically you are telling us that decisions are influenced by the people who care about what is being decided–who have skin in the game. The more they have at stake, the more they are willing to invest. Furthermore, they have the time and resources to care and participate. The 99% don’t fully comprehend how much they have at stake and,for the most part, probably see issues as unrelated to their immediate interests which are to keep from being fired, maintain their family and keep the wolf away from the door. The republic was founded on the assumption that everyone would be informed about the issues and participate, an assumption that has not been verified. In fact, it’s what we see and why civic ignorance is such a problem.

    This phenomenon isn’t unique at the state and local level. The number I hear for voluntary clubs and organizations (e.g., Lions Clubs, churches, unions, etc.) is the “80/20 rule”: 20% do the work. And what do we see in local government? Almost nobody shows up at town board meetings and school board meetings unless there is an issue that everyone cares about, at least temporarily. We often find that those attendance have distorted ideas about what is really at stake or what is really going on.

  20. Nancy – If you are a resident of the Indianapolis area, the ACLU of Indiana will be distributing free, booklet sized copies of the U.S. Constitution this Friday on Monument Circle from 11:30 to 1:00. Come on down.

  21. Stuart, absence makes the heart grow fonder.

    Our founders were crazy fond of freedom. They missed it.

    So will we when it’s gone but by then it will be gone.

  22. Sheila, the student who asked you who James Madison was must have been from out-of-state and probably Texas, where the State School Board has removed civics from the state’s high school curriculum. Gotta keep ’em dumb and thus manipulative, you know.

  23. This is where Indiana branch officials must award diplomas 2016-2017 for NCAA:IHSAA Classes on every School site by each person who must signature each credential, too, and there are 49 more of those State property descriptions that DC Justices do not travel into to hear cases argued: Indiana Constution (as a whole Amended to 2010)

    ARTICLE 14.
    Section 1. In order that the boundaries of the State may be known
    and established, it is hereby ordained and declared, that the State of
    Indiana is bounded, on the East, by the meridian line, which forms the
    western boundary of the State of Ohio; on the South, by the Ohio river,
    from the mouth of the Great Miami river to the mouth of the Wabash
    river; on the West, by a line drawn along the middle of the Wabash
    river, from its mouth to a point where a due north line, drawn from the
    town of Vincennes, would last touch the north-western shore of said
    Wabash river; and, thence, by a due north line, until the same shall
    intersect an east and west line, drawn through a point ten miles north
    of the southern extreme of Lake Michigan; on the North, by said east
    and west line, until the same shall intersect the first mentioned
    meridian line, which forms the western boundary of the State of Ohio

    And if it’s a Human drowning victim, then you cannot say his or her corpse is the property of which Senators to call. Especially near an banks at all as usually eroding burial grounds sometimes, and possibly contaminated with lead, and other casket choices of the funeral traders.

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