Tag Archives: We The People

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.

The Evidence Keeps Accumulating…

Periodically, I use this blog to indulge a rant about Americans’ lack of civic literacy. (Regular readers are probably getting tired of my preoccupation with civic education–or more accurately, the lack thereof.) Be warned– I’m going to beat that dead horse again today.

A column written by Colbert King from the Washington Post has highlighted still another research project confirming Americans’ low levels of civic knowledge. 

King introduced the topic by noting what we might call “constitutional challenges” in Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign.

He proposed a religious test on immigration, promised to “open up” U.S. libel laws and revoked press credentials of critical reporters. He called for killing family members of terrorists, said he would do “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” terrorism suspects and suggested that a U.S.-born federal judge of Mexican heritage couldn’t be neutral because of his ethnicity. He whipped up animosity against Muslims and immigrants from Mexico, branding the latter as “rapists.”

When protesters interrupted his rallies, he cheered violence against them. He told a political opponent that if he won, he would “get a special prosecutor to look into your situation,” adding “you’d be in jail.” He threatened not to respect election results if he didn’t win and, in Idi Amin fashion, made the claims of a strongman: “I alone can fix it.” He publicly expressed admiration for authoritarian Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Cherished notions of religious freedom, a free press, an independent judiciary and the rights of minorities took a beating from him. The prospect of mob violence in his defense and imprisoning of political opponents found favor.

An electorate with even a basic understanding of the U.S. Constitution would have found these assaults on foundational American principles reprehensible. And in fairness, civically- educated Americans did recoil.

The problem is, we don’t have enough civically-educated Americans.

How did a pluralistic nation that propounds democratic values and practices come to this?

“This” not being the authoritarian in the White House who dismisses basic constitutional principles as if they were annoying gnats, but “this” — an electorate that looks past the disrespect shown toward democratic ideals.

That haunting question has occupied the minds of Richard D. Kahlenberg and Clifford Janey, two education scholars and writers who began to take a hard look at this fundamental domestic challenge long before November’s results came in.

Kahlenberg and Janey addressed the scope of the problem in a joint Century Foundation report released in November, “Putting Democracy Back into Public Education.” The report was also discussed in an article in the Atlantic, “Is Trump’s Victory the Jump-Start Civics Education Needed?”

Janey and Kahlenberg argue that our “schools are failing at what the nation’s founders saw as education’s most basic purpose: preparing young people to be reflective citizens who would value liberty and democracy and resist the appeals of demagogues.”

They said today’s schools turn themselves inside out trying to prepare “college-and-career ready” students who can contend with economic globalization and economic competition and find a niche with private skills in the marketplace.

As for preparing them for American democracy? Raising civics literacy levels? Cultivating knowledge of democratic practices and beliefs with rigorous courses in history, literature and how democratic means have been used to improve the country? Not so much or maybe not at all, they suggest.

This has to change. And in Indiana, at least, a number of us are committed to changing it.

Women4Change Indiana is currently launching an effort to increase civic education; I am heading up a subcommittee that will encourage the formation of book clubs around the state focused upon the history and philosophy of America’s constitution. We will also be enlisting volunteers who will advocate in their local school systems for inclusion of the “We the People” curriculum, which is now entirely voluntary. Research has demonstrated that We the People has a salutary, lasting influence on students who have gone through it.

Citizens will not–cannot–protect what they don’t understand.

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.


We the People

Readers of this blog know that I’m a broken record when it comes to civics education–and  also know that I am a huge fan of the We the People curriculum used by some (but not nearly enough) high school government teachers. In fact, my only complaint about We the People is that its use is entirely voluntary; when I become Emperor of the Whole World, I plan to make it mandatory…

Anyway, one of the ( distressingly few) things that Indiana does well is field teams in the annual We the People competition. I was honored to be a national judge last year, when Indiana had two teams in the top ten.

This year, Fishers High School won the state competition, and the team is preparing to compete for the national title. Part of that preparation is–you knew this was coming!–raising the money needed for the trip.

I’m pasting in the solicitation I received from one team member, whose justifiably proud  parents are friends of mine. I’m going to send a contribution, and I encourage those of you who are reading this to do the same. This program–and these kids–deserve our wholehearted–whole wallet-ed?– support.

Here’s her email:

Dear Professor Kennedy,
 At Fishers High School I’m part of the “We the People…” competition team, an academic team all about the Constitution and its application. After winning the State Championships held in Indianapolis, the FHS team has officially become Team Indiana as we prepare for the 27th Annual “We the People…” National Finals in Washington D.C. this April.  It has been the greatest experience of my educational career so far and I really want it to continue!  That is why I am asking for your financial support in raising $1200 in the next two weeks so that I can get back to focusing on my studies in an effort to participate in the “We the People…” National finals.

On the team, I am part of the Unit 5 division which focuses on the Bill of Rights and when, if ever, limitations of rights are justified.  I knew “We the People…”  was going to be a rigorous class, especially during my senior year, but that it also had potential for great rewards.  Throughout this season we have been busy researching, writing, and reaching out to local lawmakers, attorneys, and constitutional scholars to help with our studies. Our team is being recognized on the floor of the Indiana General Assembly and congratulated by the Governor of Indiana in February. I want to represent my family, school, and state to the best of my ability.  That’s why I need financial support from people like you that greatly value education.  If you are ready to make a tax deductible donation right now, simply click here http://www.gofundme.com/6emck8 to donate in five minutes!
In order to be a part of this once in a lifetime experience, I need to raise $1200. Please help me by sponsoring a portion of my trip. Any contribution you could make would bring me that much closer to this experience and get me back to studying that much sooner.  All donations are tax deductible and you will be sent a letter promptly from my school for your tax records.
There are two options for you to use to contribute:
1.  Click on the link here http://www.gofundme.com/6emck8 to contribute via check or credit card in as little as 5 minutes online
2.  Mail a check made out to FHS We the People team and mail it to the following address:
                Fishers High School
c/o Liz Paternoster
13000 Promise Road
Fishers, IN 46038
 – Be sure to include my name in the memo line of the check so my teacher knows to put it towards my trip.
– Also, consider asking your employer if they participate in a matching program.  This could double your donation!
Please feel free to email me if you have any questions or want to hear more about this really great learning opportunity.  You can also email my teacher and coach at lpaternoster@hse.k12.in.us. Thank you for your consideration!
Halley Rose Meslin


Much Better

Yesterday was day two of the We the People competition, and we judged another 14 teams. Although there were a couple of substandard performances,  most of the students we saw on Day Two ranged from impressive to phenomenal.

The opening question these teams had to answer was hardly a model of clarity. “In Federalist 51, Madison famously asserted that ‘it is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part.’ In what ways do the Bill of Rights and the amendments protect individuals from oppression by its rulers?”

In the process of considering that question, we posed such ancillary inquiries as: what did the Founders see as the source of our rights? What is selective incorporation? What was the purpose of the 9th and 10th Amendments? What is the difference between negative and positive rights? What is the difference between procedural and substantive due process? Why are property rights important? and many more.

The best teams answered these and other questions in depth, displaying a highly sophisticated understanding of the philosophical origins and historical context of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. At times, they made genuinely profound observations; one student, in a discussion of Madison’s description of majority and minority factions noted that size alone should not determine whether a faction is a majority or minority–that we should consider as well the power wielded by that faction. Another, during a discussion of incorporation (the application of provisions of the Bill of Rights to state and local governments) opined that such application was particularly important because smaller governmental units can more easily be dominated by special or powerful interests.

Unlike Day One, students on yesterday’s teams didn’t hesitate to criticize court rulings, or even to disagree with what James Madison said in Federalist 51.

Most of the students were high school juniors and seniors. However, after a very good presentation by one team, we discovered that the students in that team were high school freshmen, a fact making their accomplishment particularly impressive. It was obvious that–for all of the students–the process of studying the material, preparing themselves for a public examination of their knowledge, and co-ordinating responses within their teams had sharpened their skills and given them a degree of self-confidence and poise unusual for those so young.

Today, the top ten teams will compete in sessions held at the U.S. House of Representatives. If yesterday’s performance was any indication, it will be very hard to choose an overall winner. On the other hand, all these students are winners, because they understand their country’s history and government far better than most citizens.

These kids already know more than most of our lawmakers.