Tag Archives: conference

A Thought-Provoking Conference

On November 6th, Women4ChangeIndiana held a conference, via Zoom, on “Resilience” and the status of women in the Hoosier State. The various presentations, all of which were excellent, went from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., and featured a number of accomplished professional women who addressed the various challenges that face women in Indiana: the diminution of our voices via Indiana’s extreme gerrymandering, the psychological strains of the pandemic, current efforts to improve inclusion and diversity, and the distressing lack of progress in improving the economic status of women in Indiana, among other issues.

I really encourage anyone who cares about policies that affect women in our state to click through and watch some or all of those presentations, (enter password sow21) and Charlie Richardson’s tribute to Indiiana’s icon, Marge O’Laughlin, but today I want to explore the broader implications of a remark made by one of the presenters. Shruti Rana is the Assistant Dean for Curricular and Undergraduate Affairs and Professor of International Law at I.U.’s Hamilton Lugar School in Bloomington.

During her presentation, Rana pointed out that many of the more intractable problems Hoosier women face are the result of policies requiring them to find individual solutions to what are really public problems.

Think about that for a minute, because that observation–and the barrier it represents– is true for all Americans, not just women. It is another way of describing the consequences of our ongoing disagreements over the proper role of government.

What constitutes a “public problem”? Why is a correct characterization important?

Americans valorize “personal responsibility,” and for good reason; the assumption of responsibility for our own behaviors, the “ownership” of our own mistakes, is an important part of mature adulthood (and evidently in short supply–but that is an observation for another day…). However, it is also important to recognize that there are elements of our lives that the assumption of personal responsibility can neither control nor affect to any meaningful degree.

If the electricity goes out, I suppose you could fault people who hadn’t equipped themselves with personal generators, but most of us would recognize the unfairness of  such an accusation. Victims of gun violence aren’t responsible for America’s persistent lack of firearms regulation. In the midst of a deep recession or depression, even Republicans recognize that joblessness isn’t due to laziness or lack of ambition. Most of us would bristle at the accusation that we bear any personal responsibility for the rise of QAnon and similar lunacies.

In other words, there is a difference between problems we can solve individually, by dint of hard work and the exercise of personal responsibility, and problems that require a collective response.

In the wake of the pandemic, for example, a significant number of women who want to re-enter the workforce cannot find childcare. The absence of affordable, safe places to care for their children is not, I would submit, an “individual” problem–it’s a social problem that most developed countries have recognized as such.

Rana’s remark led me to an “aha” moment–an epiphany.

I have been depressed lately–a depression shared with a number of my friends and relatives–not because of anything going on in my own life, which is admittedly a privileged one. Along with so many other Americans, I am depressed by the news, by the constant spotlight on the nation’s dysfunctions. Rana’s comment illuminated the main reason for that depression: the feelings of  helplessness and powerlessness that are a consequence of  Americans’ tendency to categorize public problems as individual ones.

It isn’t that individuals can’t do anything: we can vote (but then, gerrymandering and vote suppression…); we can organize; we can lobby our elected officials. I can educate myself by reading broadly, and I can–and do–pontificate on this blog. But most of the problems we face are not individual problems, and the exercise of personal responsibility can only take us so far.

Clearly, not far enough.

One message came loud and clear through all of the conference presentations: Unless Congress passes the voting rights act, and allows the democratic process to proceed fairly, elected officials will continue to ignore the will of the voters–and efforts to collectively address problems that are clearly public will go nowhere.


Join the (Civic) Deficit Hawks

Several days ago, I referenced the first issue of The Journal of Civic Literacy. 

The introductory essay by former Supreme Court Justice David Souter really laid out the reason for both the Journal and the Center for Civic Literacy. Souter shared his concern that– without an understanding of the fundamentals–constitutional values will make no sense to people, because they have no context for them, no framework within which to understand them. And after listing the numerous influences that divide and polarize Americans, he wrote:

 “These are conditions, historical and contemporary, that drive us apart and tend to disunite us. What have we got pulling on the other side? By and large, what we have pulling on the other side is an adherence to an American Constitutional system… The American Constitution is not simply a blueprint for structure, though it is that. It is not merely a Bill of Rights, though it is that, too. It is in essence, a value system… We need to teach that we have a value system, and the one common value system that we can claim to have in the United States is the constitutional value system: a value system that identifies the legitimate objects of power, the importance ofdistributing power, and the need to limit power by a shared and enforceable conception of human worth.

That value system is the counterpoise to the divisive tendencies that are so strong today, and civic ignorance is its enemy. It is beyond me how anyone can assume that our system of constitutional values is going to survive in the current divisive atmosphere while being unknown to the majority of the people of the United States. It is only in the common acceptance of that value system that at the end of the day, nomatter what we are fighting about, no matter what the vote is in Congress or the State House or the townmeeting, we will still understand that something holds us together.”

That danger–that Americans will increasingly fracture into interest groups and contending constituencies, that we will increasingly lose the “unum” in the maelstrom of our “pluribus”– will be the focus of the Center for Civic Literacy’s upcoming National Conference on August 22-24 in downtown Indianapolis. The (somewhat ungainly) title of the conference is “Connecting the Dots: The Impact of Civic Literacy Gaps on Democracy, the Economy and Society, and Charting a Path Forward.”

We want to move the conversation about how to address our civic deficit away from a single-minded focus on classroom and curriculum—important as those are—to a consideration of the multiple other ways in which public ignorance of basic history, government, economics and science are impeding America’s ability to achieve even our most widely-held political, economic and social goals.

We also hope to go beyond the usual hand-wringing, and consider our options for improving the situation.

The program will open with a welcome from former Indiana Supreme Court Justice Ted Boehm, who chairs the Center’s National Advisory Committee, and will feature presentations from such nationally-known figures as Ted McConnell, Executive Director of the Civic Mission of the Schools Campaign, David Schultz, election law expert and Professor at Hamline University, Dallas Dishman, Executive Director of the Geffen Foundation, and Kim McLauren, Director of the Brennan Constitutional Literacy Foundation, among many others. (Even yours truly.)

Attendance at last year’s conference was limited to members of our National Advisory Committee. This year, we have opened it to members of the general public who may be interested, although space considerations limit the number of people we can accommodate. (Registration information is here.)

I hope at least some of you who follow this blog will deliberate with us, and join the ranks of the civic deficit hawks. We need all the help we can get.




Lots of Questions Worth Pondering

This weekend, our new Center for Civic Literacy hosted the first annual meeting of its National Advisory Committee–scholars and educators from around the country who are focused upon civic education. Our goal  was to emerge from the meeting with a more focused research agenda: a better grasp of what we do and don’t know and a clearer idea of the most urgent unanswered questions about America’s “civic deficit.”

It will take me several weeks to absorb everything I heard, but here–in no particular order–are some of the questions and observations that struck me as particularly weighty during our various sessions.

  • Can we say with any assurance that more and better information changes attitudes and behaviors? Educators certainly hope so, and marketing professionals who research advertising tell us that the more informed a consumer is, the more resistant she is to misleading framing in sales pitches, but we don’t know the extent to which information has this effect in more value-laden venues.
  • How do we inculcate what used to be (quaintly) called civic virtue? If–as one participant observed–American citizens have largely been transformed into consumers, where does that leave old-fashioned notions of civic duty?
  • How do we explain to the general public that civic literacy and civic skills are not simply concerned with affairs of government? Indeed, how do we achieve some measure of consensus about what such literacy and skills include? What is the content–the basic, minimal information– a citizen of 21st Century America needs in order to understand and navigate his environment?
  • How is the teaching of civic information and skills informed by the concept of civic identity?
  • Should teaching students how to evaluate the mountains of information and misinformation supplied by the Internet be considered a civic skill?

Perhaps the most penetrating question came from an eminent professor of Social Work, who asked “To what end are we engaging in civic education? What is the desired outcome? If we were wildly, improbably successful, how would the world change?”

How, indeed?