What Is Civic Literacy?

Those of us who have spent years warning about the consequences of Americans’ low levels of civic literacy can take some comfort in the fact that Trump’s election not only proved our point, but seems to have generated an awakening among people who were previously unimpressed with the importance of the issue.

Here in Indiana, former Governor Mitch Daniels, who is now the President of Purdue University, has called for a campus-wide, mandatory civics test.

The faculty has been debating the proper approach to testing students’ civic literacy; in the meantime, they have

promised to let the president ask for a straight up-or-down vote on his baseline assumption that students should at least be able to pass the same test given to newly naturalized citizens.

Ah yes–the naturalization test.

As concerns about levels of civic ignorance have grown, a number of states have passed laws mandating the use of the naturalization test in order to graduate from high school. It’s so typical of American lawmakers, who tend to favor what I call “bumper-sticker” solutions. Civics instruction inadequate? Well, here’s a test. Give that. Problem solved.

Unfortunately, the questions on the naturalization test tend to be “civic trivia.” How many stripes on the flag? Name one branch of government? What are the first three words of the Constitution? How many U.S. Senators are there?

Now, knowing the answers to the questions on the civics test is fine. But it certainly doesn’t mean that the responder understands the way American government works. Knowing the length of a Senator’s term (another question on the test) tells you nothing about the operation of the federal government, or federalism’s division of jurisdiction–the relationships among local, state and federal levels of government.

It’s certainly nice if the test-taker can name ONE right protected by the First Amendment (another question), but that ability doesn’t translate into understanding the interaction of the religion clauses, or the purpose of free speech or a free press. Knowing that the first ten amendments are called the Bill of Rights doesn’t translate into understanding the “negative liberty” premise of the Bill of Rights– the reason that the provisions of the Bill of Rights only restrict government. (I wish I had a dollar for every student who has come into my classroom utterly unaware of that essential fact.)

What’s the difference between civil rights and civil liberties?

What is probable cause and why does it matter?

What do we mean by due process of law? The equal protection of the law?

If we really care about an informed electorate, a citizenry capable of debating the application of the actual constitution rather than a fanciful Fox-ified document, a citizenry with at least a superficial understanding of America’s history,  that isn’t going to be accomplished by a requirement that students correctly answer six questions from the citizenship test.

If I had a magic wand, I’d make every high school in the country require We the People–a curriculum that actually produces civically-literate citizens.

But that’s a solution that wouldn’t fit on a bumper-sticker.


  1. Ah yes – We The People. One of the main resources of my US Government & Politics class. Very accessible, and as non-biased a source as could be found.

    Knowing something (a factoid) and understanding a concept are so different. We need people who can -who want to – dig deeper than the surface.

  2. Amen Sheila. But to make room for that, we’ll have to abandon the idea that every student must be educated to become a scientist, math professional, engineer or computer tech. We’ve been in that curricular straitjacket for a dozen years and it’s past time to break out of it.

  3. We can’t even get half of Americans to vote and you want them to be literate about civics. 😉

    Mandatory voting and a civics class or go two years without voting and we’ll suspend your driver’s license.

    What about the adults who sit in front of the TV watching MSNBC or Fox News all day?

    Do we have a class for them to take as well because they sure aren’t being enlightened?

  4. “bumper sticker” solution is the perfect description for our basic lack of knowledge of the difference between current (long time) requirement of Government classes vs. the lack of Civics classes. Reminds me of a bumper sticker I saw years ago; “Private Bumper Sticker, Please Do Not Read”. The truth behind the required Government classes is to prevent us from knowing and understanding our part in the operation of government and the difference between “civic rights” and “civil liberties”…which I must plead continuing ignorance to myself.

    I prided myself on being an Independent voter for decades because I tried to follow campaigns of both Democratic and Republican candidates on their past records as well as their campaign foundations. It wasn’t until Barack Obama began his campaign for the presidency in 2008, and after reading both of his books, that I began looking into the Constitution and the Amendments. Another “mea culpa” here because I still have a lack of understanding the difference between “civic rights” and “civil liberties” as the current government, backed by SCOTUS, appears to be stripping us of both while I remain unaware of which category our losses fit into. Since 2008 I have had well worn copies of the Constitution on my coffee table and by my computer for quick reference; I also keep my Bible with the Constitution near my computer to cover those declarations by the evangelicals. A required high school Civics class would have enlightened my understanding of the Constitution, its Amendments and the affects of the current loss of the separation of church and state. By the way; I did easily pass the immigration literacy test but am no more enlightened as to my civic rights and my civic duties..

  5. Knowing how many stars there are on the flag is nice, but it doesn’t take us beyond the superficial. Knowing the impact of Marbury v. Madison, Brown v. Board, Roe v. Wade, and similar definitional and important cases take us to where the legal rubber meets the road in their description of how ideas expressed in our Constitution are implemented into action. How many stars gives us little information on how we are to understand and conduct ourselves in the national community; understanding the impact of such cases along with the legislative contributions to citizenship give us a far better understanding of our roles as citizens – our rights, our responsibilities, our privileges, our immunities – all as circumscribed by the Constitution and case law defining such hazy notions into our everyday life as citizens.

    Politicians such as the president of Purdue are into quick fixes which give them an Oz curtain to pretend that the problem is solved. Not. I would recommend a three hour course in civics which would be far more comprehensive and specific to several content areas, beginning with constitutional history, current issues etc., taught not by ideologues from left or right but rather from a neutral point of view.

    Impossible to separate politics from such teaching? Unfortunately, probably, but worth a try in view of our chronic and unaddressed ignorance in the area. Counting stars is no substitute for at least some understanding of the whys and wherefores of how we are to conduct ourselves as citizens in enjoying democratic values and institutions, what government can do and what is is prohibited from doing via the Bill of Rights etc., so let’s give it a whirl.

  6. “We can’t even get half of Americans to vote and you want them to be literate about civics. ?”

    Todd; isn’t it obvious that the reason half of Americans who do not vote is BECAUSE OF their lack of literacy regarding Civics? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that connection is a no-brainer for even those of us who are not fully aware of our “civic rights” and “civil liberties” or the differences.

    Those of us who sit in front of the TV watching MSNBC and CNN know better than to watch Fox News; we are seeking enlightenment because we were not provided the opportunity of civics classes.

  7. As a Purdue alumni I chuckled a few weeks ago when I first read about Mitch Daniels’ desire to require ‘his idea’ of a civics knowledge test. What is his actual hidden goal?

    He knows those questions wouldn’t prove that students actually have any knowledsge of how our government works. It sounds good, but knowing Mitch, there is more to his announcement than meets the eye. He has some hidden agenda.

    To give him the benefit of the doubt though, at least he is bringing the student body’s lack of knowledge about civics out in the open as an important issue to be addressed. Maybe he has a heart after all?

  8. Just returned from an intense four day bus trip from Indianapolis to Montgomery, Alabama, to engage and interact the Civil Rights Trail. Very sobering experience among monuments and memorial museums dedicated to holding trust with truth about white terrorism and a very dark history of our nation. Observed many high school and college age groups also visiting and listening to veteran ‘foot soldiers’ of the Selma March alongside Dr. King. This is a must for every citizen and political candidate who seeks office.

  9. A university with a civics test,,,now i understand bubba has issues,in my work environment,and betsie devos has issues with knowing right from her own agenda., please send this this test to millions,and do a study. forword results to a public forum,(open to all, without facebooks crap)before the next election.maybe you may awaken a sleeping giant..p.s. send it to trump, and see if ivanka will read it to him,,,

  10. Bingo! Shiela, you nailed it – responding to the Purdue survey on this topic, I expressed a similar perspective. The idea that giving a multiple choice test will miraculously solve our civic literacy problem fits with Mitch’s lack of understanding of the learning process. Argh!

  11. I’m not sure there should be a “right to privacy”. We should have a right to CERTAIN KINDS OF PRIVACY, and each kind should be expressly listed. The term Right to Privacy is too broad and is taken too broadly by millions of people, who, as a result, jump to inaccurate hate conclusions in regard to how they think their government is mistreating people.

    I also have a problem with any Constitution, including ours, for which citizens must take a course to understand. I propose that all paper (hard) copies of the U.S. Constitution be impounded and relegated to museums. Then replace the hard copies with digital copies that have each critical word and concept linked to a full explanation of its meaning and application.

    I presumed that Wikipedia already had such a presentation of the U.S. Constitution, but it does not. Wikipedia either has one rendition that is a long-winded dissertation and history of the Constitution, or it offers a link to the full Constitution. That is backwards from the way it should be presented: Wikipedia should present the full Constitution with all of its trick words and phrases liberally linked (in blue) to short, clear explanations, which contain links to further explanations, which contain links to further explanations, which contain links to further explanations, ad infinitum, as deep into its complexity, history and Court interpretations as anyone needs to burrow.

  12. Well, MAYBE there will be an awakening among the 5th Avenue people….

    Speaking of Fox News…. Why did the nonsensical Tom Perez eliminate FoxNews from the upcoming debate season? Here is a golden opportunity for all the progressive candidates to do instant contrast to the fool they got elected – with help from the Russians and the DNC, of course. This would be a GREAT opportunity to poke the somnolent masses in the eye with truth, facts and rational leadership. But, no. Tom Perez and the DNC want to take their marbles and go home.

    Oh, and wouldn’t it be great if the climate scientists pushed one of their viewer programs onto Fox News? Let THEM deny that free flow of information. Let THEM look like the dorks they are. What a great opportunity for America to watch Sean Hannity’s head explode. No worries about the mess. There’s nothing inside.

  13. Larry,

    You only need to be able to read to understand our constitution. However, like any great work, it is subject to interpretation. When Robert Frost was asked what his poem “The Mending Wall” meant, he responded, “It means what it says.” The Constitution also means what it says, but it says different things to different people.

    To date, we have relied upon the Supreme Court to provide that interpretation. That concept has had its good times and its bad times. I suggest that selection of any justice should require a 2/3 majority of the Senate for approval. That would reasonably limit the impact of ideologues on the interpretation.

    I’m not sure if many people realize that the Constitution provides no penalties for violations of the document. That is not the purpose of the document. It is an outline for the set-up and execution of a government and it specifies rights which must be considered unalienable.

    Now, to more mundane matters. Mitch Daniels is a political hack and he is busy sullying the reputation of Purdue University. I’m sure he believes that the citizenship test is an adequate measure of civic literacy and it is, for those who are new to the country and who may not speak the language all that well.

  14. “I’m not sure if many people realize that the Constitution provides no penalties for violations of the document. That is not the purpose of the document. It is an outline for the set-up and execution of a government and it specifies rights which must be considered unalienable.”

    Peggy; I agree with your paragraph copied and pasted above except for one major exception regarding its purpose…the president and every member of Congress swears an oath to support and uphold that constitution when they are handed the powers of their elected office. There must be some way for Senate and House members to hold their fellow members to that oath or to remove them if they do not. Senators and Representatives put McConnell and Ryan in place and sat idle as they refused to uphold their end of the bargain which we elected them to do…and which our tax dollars pays them well to do.

  15. Bravo Sheila!! If I run across a magic wand I will send it to you right away!!

    The fact that basic civic literacy regarding this country’s history and governmental system, or the lack thereof, is an issue in education is just mind-boggling. When I was a kid, back when dinosaurs had just stopped roaming through Indianapolis, we were brought up on this step-by-step, nurtured grade by grade from kindergarten on buttressed by what our parents taught us – at least mine did. Now, instead of having to recite the Gettysburg Address as we did in grade school some kid or teen, upon hearing of it, is looking it up on his or her smartphone as if it is a physical address.

    God help us, please!

  16. A critical topic – thanks Sheila. Also check out iCivics created by former justice Sandra Day O’Conner. And again….what a place to implement “Teaching as a Subversive Activity”!

  17. JoAnn,

    The rules of both the House and the Senate allow for censure or removal of members from their respective bodies. It’s not something they do often.

  18. Peggy; it is apparent that, even with the Senate denying Trump’s “national emergency” declaration (KNOWING his veto was forthcoming), they still sit idle and will not act to overturn his veto. Of course; the coming veto was the only reason they denied his declaration. Like those in Congress who spoke publicly against Trump but voted to uphold him; he will pillage, loot and rob to his evil heart’s content as he Tweets his way through his days and nights. Will evangelicals ever realize they are ruled by the Antichrist as they accept his every word and deed as if from the Holy Spirit? I truly fear Trump will win in 2020 and we have 6 more years in Hell.

    Civics lessons cannot undo the current situation but it can prevent a repeat of 2016 and the probable outcome of 2020.

  19. Learning Civic Literacy is rather tricky. It is like learning anything else. I learned Trigonometry once. I have not used in decades. I learned proper grammar, etc. in school. When I went to school in Illinois you had to pass a Civics course to graduate from HS. Like a lot of other “Tests” you end studying for the test. It does mean I learned the material or cared about retaining it.

    Anyone who takes politics seriously will soon realize how rigged the system is. Those with money and/or clout run the system.

    It is like Medicare for All now, or Universal-Single Payer Heath Care, which is far superior to what we have. Yet, Medicare for All which would save lives is opposed by the Reactionary Republicans and Corporate Democrats like Nancy Pelosi. How do explain this with the context of Civic Literacy???

    Do you tell the truth and inform the students that Big Pharma, and the For Profit Health Care System control the political system through various elected political puppets and stooges??

  20. Once again, this blog and its commenters have given me a lesson and much food for thought. Thanks to all of you who share your opinions, ideas, knowledge and experience.

  21. Research on voting unfortunately suggests that Americans don’t vote because they think it won’t make any difference. Maybe … because it doesn’t seem to???

  22. Civics Lessons. Joanne Freeman in a new book reports that Congressman between 1830-60 engaged in more than seventy violent incidents of duels, fist fighting and stabbings among themselves.

    I think Biden and Trump should settle all this behind the bleachers as has been suggested. 🙂

  23. In explaining how government works, Monotonous could have added the Koch brothers, the fossil fuel lobby, the 12,000 lobbyists in D.C., the NRA, ALEC, the conservative justices who believe all critical thinking and all progress ceased in 1787, the evangelicals, nearly all big corporations, Israel, Saudi Arabia, states rights, racists (currently the most powerful bloc in American politics), all politicians who put party before country, filibustering, Beltway Bandit CEO’s, Neocons, certain media execs, Citizens United, and, no doubt, many others I’ve omitted.

    This civics lesson is getting out of control. Maybe we can’t handle the truth. But then maybe we better try. I’ll sign up if Sheila teaches the course.

  24. it is late in the day but I just spotted a post about our Indianapolis City-County Council awarding Eli Lilly Co. nearly $10 MILLION in tax breaks to improve their insulin research facility. Per Market Watch, March 7, 2019, their insulin medication Humalog costs $38 per vial in Canada; can cost up to $329 per vial in America but Lilly will offer “special customers” the same medication for $140 per vial. I have been unable to learn who the “special customers” are.

    Do our civic rights begin with local government and are hearings on these issues made public prior to Council votes regarding use of our local tax dollars. This situation and other decision effecting our lives and use of our tax budget is one of many reasons a reputable daily newspaper is needed here. Is our deplorable pot hole situation being used as a distraction from such as the Eli Lilly $10 MILLION tax break? Senator Dick Durbin is closely watching this situation with Eli Lilly and other Big Pharma costs …but are our Indiana Senators and Representatives or are they working with Lilly lobbyists?

    The list of City-County Council responsibilities and their level of power is a situation we need to be keeping closer watch on…especially being a Republican state. Democratic Mayor Joe Hogsett is up for reelection but he is at a disadvantage politically.

  25. The public schools have been using COMMON CORE OUTCOME EDUCATION since the Bush controled Reagan admin. Created by B,F, Skinner , inspired by Carl Marx.

  26. Now isn’t that ripe, Mitch Daniels asking for a Civics Test. The man who excoriated Howard Zinn and tried to make it illegal for Indiana schools to use his books. What a joke.

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