What We Can Do

Yesterday, I spoke to the Danville Unitarians about–surprise!–the importance of civic knowledge, and what each of us can do to encourage its acquisition…Here’s what I said. Apologies for the length.


I was asked to talk today about the importance of what I call Civic Literacy—and to suggest what your congregation and each of you individually might do to encourage other people to acquire the knowledge necessary to properly discharge their citizenship responsibilities.

Let me share some background. In late 2010, I was teaching my undergraduate class in Law and Public Policy. I approach this subject-matter through a constitutional lens, because—after all—in order to be legally enforceable, policies have to be constitutional, and it helps when policymakers have some idea of what the Constitution requires. I begin with a brief description of the Enlightenment (which few of my undergraduate students have ever heard of), proceed to the “architecture” of our constitutional system, and then consider what people mean when they talk about “original intent.”

I often introduce that discussion by asking what James Madison thought about porn on the Internet.

Usually, the students to whom I direct that question laugh and say something to the effect that Madison could never have imagined something like the Internet. But of course, Madison did have opinions about the importance of free expression and the need to protect such expression from government censorship, so we proceed to discuss how the courts have applied the Founders’ intent – protection of the principleof freedom of speech—to a variety of communication mechanisms Madison could never have contemplated.

On this particular day, however, the student to whom I directed the question (a college junior) looked puzzled, and asked “Who is James Madison?”

It was my introduction to America’s civic literacy deficit.

That incident triggered a question I went on to explore: how widespread is such civic ignorance? What don’t Americans know about our country’s history, philosophy and legal system? The answer, according to the data then available, was: a lot. At the time, for example, only 36% of Americans could name the three branches of government. By last year, that same national survey found the number had slipped to 26%.

Overall, a huge amount of data confirms that most Americans know little or nothing about the Constitution, or about government, economics or science. Most cannot define the terms they routinely employ to embrace or dismiss different systems, like capitalism, socialism and fascism.

Why do I think that informed civic engagement is so important?

Civic literacy (or lack thereof) affects the whole of society. Reasonable levels are especially critical to the maintenance of democratic norms.

We are currently seeing the results when people elected to high office don’t respect those norms, or know anything about the Constitution, or the way government works—or for that matter, what science is or the most basic principles of economics. Such individuals are elected by voters who don’t understand those things, either– who don’t understand what skills governing requires and who are unable to evaluate the performance of the people they elect.

If that isn’t bad enough, over the past quarter century or so, we’ve seen the growth of yet another problem that is largely attributable to low levels of civic literacy: susceptibility to spin, propaganda and so-called “fake news.” When you don’t know what the rules really are, it’s easy to believe hysterical accusations. Did a Court say a cross on government property violated the Establishment Clause? That means Satanists have won, and we’ll have to remove the crosses from our churches! (True story.)

We know that the American public is ignorant—not stupid, just ignorant– but there’s a lot we don’t know about the causes and consequences of this very troubling deficit of civic knowledge:
·      What is the civic deficit? i.e., what is the necessary content/what are the essential skills that make a person “civically literate”?
·      How are civic literacy and civic engagement related? Which comes first? What behaviors beyond voting reflect civic engagement/civic skills?
·      Where, besides some public-school classrooms, are civic skills taught and/or civic information imparted?
·       Is there a relationship between perceived political efficacy and motivation to become civically knowledgeable? (“I can’t make a difference anyway, so why bother?”)

As an old lawyer once told me, there’s really only one legal or political question, and that’s “what do we do?” That’s the question the Center for Civic Literacy is now focusing on.

So—what can any of us do? Let me share a few ideas.

Awhile back, a graduate student and I wrote a short book we called Giving Civics a Sporting Chance. We compared America’s fascination with sports trivia to our lack of civic knowledge. Every weekend, some bar is holding a trivia contest and customers are demonstrating that they know who threw the winning pitch in the 1939 World Series.  Why not hold trivia contests focused on American history, government and the constitution?  (You might generate some local political support if you include questions like “Who’s your city councilor?” or “What does the county coroner do?”)

In Indianapolis, we worked with the public library on a project we called “Electing Our Future”—it might also serve as a template for local efforts. A couple of months before municipal elections, we had panel discussions about the issues winning candidates would face. We didn’t talk about the candidates–we didn’t even invite them– but about the problems we’d expect them to solve and the practical, legal and financial constraints they would face.

One effort that is still ongoing and has been very popular is an adult version of “We the People.” Women4Change worked with the National Center for Civic Literacy to offer one night per week, six-week versions of that very effective civics curriculum.

There is another thing that each of us can do to call attention to the superficiality of American knowledge. When we read a letter to the Editor or a post to a widely-read blog that misstates a Constitutional principle, or incorrectly defines an economic term, or confuses science with religion, we need to respond.

For example: “I noticed that Sally Smith dismissed evolution because it is “just a theory.” But “theory” in science is a technical term, not to be confused with ordinary usage. Scientific theories are supported by evidence that has been tested empirically….” You get the idea. These corrections should be as polite as we can make them, since the people who express uneducated, factually-wrong opinions are likely to resent having “smarty pants elitists” correct them. That said, I think a concerted effort to highlight misinformation and raise awareness would have a positive effect.

The problem isn’t just that Americans are deficient in knowledge about the country’s history, constitution and legal system— the problem is that, so far as I can tell, most Americans have been unconcerned about those deficiencies, and the failure of most schools to teach civics adequately.

One of the reasons our public schools don’t focus on educating future citizens is the philosophical divide among citizens about the purpose of public education. The arguments made by self-styled reformers tend to focus on education as a consumer good; a “good school” is one that imparts skills needed by children who will enter the global marketplace. In the United States, however, public education was originally conceived to be—in Benjamin Barber’s felicitous phrase—constitutive of a public. In an ever-more-diverse polity, where the Constitution and “American creed” are essential elements of our “civic religion” (and frequently the source of the only values we hold in common), a robust civics education is what allows us to “constitute” a polity. It is what makes us Americans.

Marketable skills and STEM skills are important, but so is familiarity with—and ideally, allegiance to– the history and philosophy of America’s approach to self-government. If there is one over-riding lesson we at the Center for Civic Literacy have learned it is that—despite our national fondness for flag waving and our constant, pious references to the Constitution—too few Americans know what the flag stands for, or what the Constitution says.

Ultimately, of course, we have to lobby our legislatures to require more and better history and civics instruction in our schools. When you think about it, Americans don’t pray to the same god, read the same books and newspapers, watch the same television shows, eat the same foods—a lot of us don’t even speak the same language. The only thing that all Americans have in common is a particular philosophy of government and a distinctive set of social values—and when we don’t know anything about that philosophy or those values, we aren’t Americans; we’re just a collection of separate, mutually-suspicious constituencies contending for power.

And most of us understand that encouraging distrust in a bunch of mutually hostile, know-nothing constituencies is highly unlikely to make America great again…

Thank you.


  1. Sadly, I don’t think our lack of knowledge regarding civics is an accident. In the video series, History of Self, they explore this intentional move from an educated citizenry to mass consumers. It all shifted post WW2.

    Our culture went from think, think, think to buy, buy, buy. It helped the economy grow.

    Kids today don’t need to be taught about civics…they just need to be introduced to the idea. They can research for themselves.

    Universities still hold the rights to issue diplomas but I wonder for how long they can hold onto this monopoly. A university used to be the warehouse of knowledge but is that still true today with the massive growth of the internet?

    Self-paced curriculums are coming. My kindergartner is already in advanced placement for reading. Should her thirst for knowledge be constrained by a linear progression of grade levels?

    We educate our citizenry like widgets on an assembly line. Is it any wonder why we are becoming an embarrassment on the world’s stage?

    One parting shot, why do you think our youth of today embrace socialism versus the elderly generations produced under the post WW2 consumerism era?

    Meanwhile, Indiana is dragging itself through the 20th century…

  2. Being unsure of exactly who Danville Unitarians are, I researched a little for information, I assume they are members of the Danville Unitarian Universalist Church. Please correct me if I am wrong; but I’m sure you understand my questioning a church, especially a rural church, wanting information about “the importance of civic knowledge, and what each of us can do to encourage its acquisition” in this age of federal evangelicals. I appreciate the fact that they are aware of their lack of knowledge and sought an excellent source to speak to them.

    “The problem isn’t just that Americans are deficient in knowledge about the country’s history, constitution and legal system— the problem is that, so far as I can tell, most Americans have been unconcerned about those deficiencies, and the failure of most schools to teach civics adequately.”

    I recently asked my granddaughter, an extremely intelligent young woman (31 years old today) who graduated from Indiana University’s Medical School (specializing in pediatric heart surgery) after a total of 5 years of college education, if her high school had a Civics Class. She assured me it did; I asked because she had voted for Trump after not watching any of his rallies or speeches but listened to her new husband, a Catholic Republican from a wealthy southern Indiana family, to make her decision in the 2016 election. This was a total turnaround from discussions we have had for years about human rights. A few more questions and it appears she had a Government Class in high school which basically teaches the structure of our government but not our part in or connection to it…not the Civics connection regarding our rights and responsibilities. The same Government Class I had in the 1950’s. We are currently looking at a future of educated students who will know the names and histories of all Apostles but not know who James Madison or any of our founding fathers were. I can only assume the Danville Unitarians you spoke to were asking for information because they also want to understand the “separation of church and state” in these chaotic times. They appear to be aware they lack necessary knowledge; a major step to resolving the current political Twilight Zone in which we live.

    “And most of us understand that encouraging distrust in a bunch of mutually hostile, know-nothing constituencies is highly unlikely to make America great again…”

    “Kids today don’t need to be taught about civics…they just need to be introduced to the idea. They can research for themselves.” As for this ignorant comment by Todd, our resident nay-sayer, I am at a loss for words.

  3. Universities were meant to be warehouses of critical thinking, not of knowledge per se. We went there in the dark ages to find out how to find out what we needed to know. That is particularly important when you realize that what you need to know today if vastly different from what you needed to know in 1968.

    The internet is a warehouse of everything. Find whatever “fact” suits your mood, rather than actual facts.

  4. JoAnn,
    I encourage you to further research Unitarian Universalism I suspect some of your concerns and assumptions that they lacked Civic knowledge would be unfounded.

  5. Jerry; I have no concerns about Unitarian Universalism and I always assume people who lack knowledge are the people who ask questions. Which is why I asked Sheila to correct me if I was wrong in assuming she spoke to a church affiliated group in Danville. I was questioning MY OWN understanding of who she spoke to, not questioning anything about the religious denomination. I can only applaud this specific group for seeking information about the issue of civics, echoing Sheila’s “surprise!”. “Yesterday, I spoke to the Danville Unitarians about–surprise!–the importance of civic knowledge, and what each of us can do to encourage its acquisition…”

    How many religious denominations are questioning Trump and Pence’s christian evangelical political administration?

  6. “Most cannot define the terms they routinely employ to embrace or dismiss different systems, like capitalism, socialism and fascism.”

    I was once “informed” by a right-wing commentator that communism and fascism were the same thing. When I responded with dictionary definitions – including page numbers – he wrote back saying the dictionary was wrong. I think that is called confirmation bias writ large.

    As suggested here, I agree that the buy, buy, buy mentality has usurped our civic conversation to the point of making most of us sound vapid. Thankfully, there are groups like those who write on this blog who actually pay attention.

  7. I was once a member of the creedless Unitarian Church (before its amalgamation with the Universalists) – and knowing that church’s liberal history – am not surprised that the Danville group asked Sheila to comment on civic literacy.

    When a college student asks who James Madison was, we are all in trouble, and when the Texas State Board of Education removes civics from the state’s high school curriculum, you know that we are in real trouble what with state approval of civic illiteracy as (presumably) good policy.

    I like to think that America is more than STEM successes and greedy merchants in the marketplace buying and selling goods, services and paper that tracks corporate success or failure, but with a civic illiterate like Trump at the helm, it is tempting to throw in the towel and join those who work day and night in asset-gathering while ignoring America’s history and post-enlightenment values, both under attack now from the asset-gatherers, but I won’t, recognizing that if ordinary Americans were civically educated we would very likely not have this criminal rogue at the helm, thus proving the old saw that “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”

  8. Don’t forget that it’s civil illiteracy that keeps people away from the polls on election day and that’s GOOD for the GOP.
    So, in Indiana, forget about funding for civic instruction and, remember, “Ignorance is Bliss” and Basketball is Better.

  9. Civic Literacy is a way of describing how the system is supposed to work. It is like buying a new car and carefully reading the manual and then realizing you need to buy fuel to put the car in motion.

    The fuel for the political system is Money. Since campaign donations are now associated with speech, the political system is flooded with Pac’s, Super Pac’s and Lobbyists. Lobbyists do not have to take a day off of work to travel to a hearing during the day like we Proles do. The Lobbyists are paid to be at center of the political power, could be at the City-County-Council, State House, or Washington.

    Here in Indianapolis we have the Colts and Pacers lavished with tax dollars to build them stadiums and subsidize their operations. At the same time we a Public Park system that is almost non-existent in the vast majority of neighborhoods and a Public Transportation System that is seriously limited by a lack of funding. Demonstrating a “Civic Literacy” by knowing these facts is that going to change the politicians to cut the Corporate Welfare Programs for the Colts and Pacers and spend these dollars on Public Parks and Public Transportation. The answer is NO! NO! NO!

    We know our For-Profit-Health Care is a disaster. Universal Single Payer Heath Care is the answer. So why do so many politicians oppose it??? Who are their paymasters?? Answer For-Profit-Health Care Corporations, Pac’s and Lobbyists.

    You can have all the Civic Literacy classes you want starting with First Graders, tell them all about James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, etc. At some point these Proles will realize, who really controls “The System”.

    Perhaps the questions to ask is when was the last time you donated money to a political campaign or actually worked for a candidate you liked???

  10. Monotonous; the Colts get 30% of the total CIB budget, as reported by Paul K. Ogden months ago.

  11. I was lucky. In Rushville, Indiana I had excellent high school teachers who taught me US history and another class simply called Government. We also studied Indiana history in the 7th grade.

    I am a Unitarian Universalist and am certain that the people at the church in Danville are not what you would expect of citizens who live in a small town. In fact, one year, I stood with many of the residents of Danville to protest the military policy of “Don’t ask, Don’t tell.”

    If we are going to teach US history, however, it should include the history of minorities and those who were defeated, the Native Americans. We are still very disrespectful of the land and sacred places of Native Americans.

    I think we need more public forums, classes etc at our libraries , schools, and other public venues to ensure that the citizens of our country are educated about our federal,state, and local governments, our history (both our successes and failures), and how we can become engaged as citizens to move our country forward. Those classes need to be something other than a dry, intellectual presentation.They need to be VERY engaging.

    I led a Spirit and Place event many years ago. It was a dramatic reenactment of the “Mock Trial of Susan B Anthony.” Our venue was at the capital building at one of the Supreme Court’s rooms. The Supreme court justices spoke to the audience. The room overflowed with old and young, different races, men and women. Theatre, music, and art can help keep people engaged. Don’t just pull in the scholars for these presentations. Pull in the arts. Let’s show the drama of civic engagement, the heroic quest to create a nation that seeks to fulfill its democratic ideals.

  12. When I engage on social media people who seem to be primarily definable as deniers of science because of their politicized view of climate change I find that they tend to have much more in common. They are Trump supporters. They are NRA supporters. They see themselves as originalists. They are not pro-choice. They are white nationalists. In fact many are borderline anarchists using the disguise of libertarians. Some clearly support theocracy.

    If you question their civic literacy the typical response is quite startling. They believe that they are exceptionally well educated in civic literacy. They believe that all of those things they stand for are the result of their exceptional knowledge of American history and government.

    The problem? They were educated in civics and science by entertainment media. They apparently didn’t get or have forgotten civil literacy and science public education and have since started learning from scratch from Rush Limbaugh and all of the entertainers who followed him in creating and recruiting extreme right wing Republicans.

    If you think that it’s hard educating people try educating those who think that they posses superior knowledge.

    Gerald (from yesterday): “…I’m writing about good government, not personnel issues, and the way to end corporate control is to elect people who can’t be bought…”

    If we elected Jesus Christ as our Representative, He would be owned by a Corporate entity in a few weeks. Campaign finance supersedes every other issue, which means it is useless to create a solution to any other issue because corporations not served by the new solution will buy it off quick and cheap.

    Nothing we can do at your urging, Gerald, or mine, to perfect the voter’s search for Diogenes’ honest person will help until we find a way to block corporate/tycoon purchase of that honest person.

    I would expect every post from now on – if it be practical instead of mere venting – to address the problem of HOW TO STOP THE MONEYED (CORPORATE OR TYCOON’S) PURCHASE OF GOVERNMENT.

    Once we storm that redoubt- the enemy-tycoon’s strategic hill – and from it the artillery of the wealthy no longer sunders hopelessness among the populace for self-governance, we will be surprised to see how much civic education and participation will increase.

  14. Have you all taken part in the program the Center for Civic Literacy offers?

    It and They are amazing!!!! I highly recommend you take the time and opportunity and support its expansion, for the benefit of others, ourselves, and our country.

  15. I took government classes back in 1959 during the Nixon/Kennedy Presidential election. We had debates in class. This was taught by a nun in a Catholic HS in northern Indiana.
    I have working knowledge of the structure of government on a federal level, not so much at the state and local level. Those structures have changed over my lifetime in some fairly significant ways (think, Unigov).
    I have learned more about the philosophy of governance in the civic literacy lessons that Professor Kennedy teaches us almost daily than I ever did in formal education.
    Reading extensively has been the underpinning of my continuing education. Attending town halls, legislative committee hearings, planning committee hearings, zoning hearings, being called for jury duty and receiving instructions from a judge in jury trials have contributed as well. Curiosity provides a constant drive to know more.
    If our next generation is not engaged at all, is ignorant of the past history and philosophy of our democratic republic, unaware of its continuing development and its past mistakes, we will follow all the past great civilizations into the dust bin of archeology/ancient history.
    “I, Claudius” by Robert Graves, a book I have owned for years and just got around to reading, was so reflective of what we see currently in our own country as to serve as a cautionary tale. Great wealth breeds power, entitlement and absolute power leads to the breakdown of social norms, fear and oppression with entertainment providing the social distractions necessary to keep power in place. Lying, cheating, stealing and intrigue keep the revolution in check for a while, but it will come.

  16. Robin’s comment about history and civics classes > “Those classes need to be something other than a dry, intellectual presentation.”

    As principal of Bridgeville Elementary School (northern California…K-8th grade) in the late 1960s, I used student government to teach the basic conceptual differences between dictatorship, socialism and democracy. Our school year was divided into quarters instead of semesters, which gave me my opportunity.

    I required student government during the first quarter to operate as a dictatorship. The dictator was selected through a combination academic-athletic contest (war), winner take all.

    The second quarter, I required student government to function as socialist. At quarter’s end, I permitted student government to issue simulated report cards on which every student received identical grades, I think C-.

    And the third quarter I devoted student government to operate the good old old-fashioned way – as a democracy.

    I am writing a screen play about this episode in my life (anyone recall “Conrack” 1974), including the many reactions from students, parents, state officials and media.

    Perhaps the most perplexing reaction was from a handful of students who rejected any form of government. Without exception, they were students who were physically endowed with the strength and meanness to rise to the top in an environment without rules.

    Once a week, we engaged in a kind of school-wide town hall meeting in which we discussed how government in our school was working or not working. I recall great excitement about this approach and would not be surprised if those students still recall those days and those lessons vividly.

    An interesting side note: the entire town of Bridgeville – houses, stores, post office, school and utilities was owned by one person. I did not think at the time to discuss that fact in its similarity to government by oligarchy, but it would fit nicely and with timeliness in my screen play.

    It is also enlightening to know that the owner of Bridgeville sold the town on the Internet, an ominous reminder of what can happen when oligarchs own a nation. Bridgeville, like perhaps America, is once again for sale.

  17. Larry; I saw “Conrack” again recently on a cable channel. Had read Pat Conroy’s book “The Water Is Wide” from which the movie was made. Have you read his book “The Citadel” about his experience in a military academy? His books are semi-autobigraphical, about his own life experiences, including “The Great Santini” loosely based on his own father. All give insight into southern life and their limited acceptance of anyone or anything “different” than the southern experience.

  18. First, Sheila I must say, again you have hit the proverbial nail on the head. I absolutely love this Blog.
    Next, everyone of you commenting here today has contribute value and I want to thank you all. For example, Larry K, the abuse of ownership via the fate of ‘Bridgeville,’ and JD, your reminder of how history serves us via “I, Claudius.” Barbara, I can’t tell you how badly I needed to be pointed in a specifice direction by your offer for the Center for Civic Literacy, along with, (yes again), Larry K’s reality check about Corporate corruption of our representative. Pete, you have also hit a nail on the head by your understanding of the mentality of those who truly believe they are right and will never question themselves. Of course, it’s awfully easy to feel that way. regardless of any affilliation, NRA or otherwise. Robin R., your experiences in your town, such as your ‘Susan B. Anthony” mock trial along with your urging to include in our study of history American Indians and others who have been ‘defeated’ shows me how far we have to go to truly understand who we are. Monotonous L, you shame me when you ask “when was the last time you donated money to a political campaign or actually worked for a candidate you liked???” My answer is not enough. And your astute mention of the value of money in our system.
    JoAnn, in your wonderfully no nonsense way you hit another nail on the head with, “And most of us understand that encouraging distrust in a bunch of mutually hostile, know-nothing constituencies is highly unlikely to make America great again…” Last bu not least, Todd S., I have to agree with your opinion that our civic ignorance is not an accident. And, Consumerism is an all absorbing viral activity that has taken over much of the world. It is a force that could distract us from less attractive practical matters like civic responsibility. Not sure.
    Sheila, thank you again.

  19. Unfortunately, civics as a separate course was eliminated from Indiana high school requirements years ago. It was to be included in Social Studies which could and did give civics less attention.

    The State Chamber of Commerce and so-called education ‘reformers’ have squeezed time for civics, geography, cursive writing, fine arts, vocational ed., and more from the curricula with ever increasing course requirements for science, technology, and math courses for EVERY student – even for students who won’t need or use or be accomplished at any of these. Many students won’t need 4 years of math to know calculus or algorithims, but everyone needs to understand their government at local, state, and federal levels and how to impact them. Students also need the humanities to understand the values that society and democracy should honor, promote, and practice.

    The Koch Brothers and their favorite offspring (the American Legislative Exchange Council -ALEC) oppose democracy in the workplace and in government. They support privatizing government so it’s NOT transparent and NOT directly accountable to the public (think Flint Michigan private management which supplanted the mayor and city council and poisoned the water supply). Similarly, ALEC opposes labor unions, worker safety requirements, and workers who have any right to challenge employers on anything in the workplace, in courts, or in agencies. ALEC wants workers and Americans to be worker bees who are controlled and exploitable by those of financial means and political power like the Koch brothers themselves. Beware America. Our own oligarchs are on the march.

  20. I don’t post often. The last three days were the state finals of the “We The People” competitions for high school and middle school students. Students present a prepared statement in response to constitutional questions, followed by a question and answer period by judges. These students know more about the Constitution and case law than most adults, and according to my fellow judges, more than many attorneys.

    In response to a question about “how do we fix this?” type of question about the decline in attachment to democracy by young people, a high school student suggested that a section on civics be added to SAT. This and other great ideas from young people give me hope for the future.

    Fans of Sheila: if your local schools do not offer the class, please encourage them to participate. https://inbf.org/Educational-Programs/We-The-People

  21. I cannot disagree with a word of what you wrote about civic literacy. I do think, however, that there is one other strand that needs to go into the knot of this now desperate problem: the denigration of excellence. The pronouncement that “all men [sorry] are created equal” has led to the belief that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” “I’m just as good as you” in some basic sense has also become “my opinions and mental processes” – such as they are – “are just as valid as yours” – even if you are Einstein or Niels Bohr or have degrees in Philosophy and Biochemistry from the Sorbonne. Ultimately, there is nothing to attain because we’re just fine the way we are. Try teaching someone who doesn’t really believe that there is anything particularly worthwhile or elevating in a pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. We’re in a really deep pool of poop.

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