Taking Issue

KENNEDY: We need to connect the civic dots

July 12, 2014

Sheila Suess KennedyThe Center for Civic Literacy at IUPUI, which I direct, has just published the first issue of our new academic journal, titled (not very imaginatively) The Journal of Civic Literacy. It features an introductory essay by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter.

The essay is well worth reading in its entirety, and the entire issue is available (free) online.

Souter shares his concern that, without an understanding of the fundamentals, constitutional values will make no sense to people, because they’ll have no context for them. After listing numerous influences that divide and polarize Americans, he writes:

“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 of distributing 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, no matter what we are fighting about, no matter what the vote is in Congress or the State House or the town meeting, we will still understand that something holds us together.”

As the justice eloquently reminds us, Americans are an unusually individualistic polity. Social scientists tell us that we are outliers in that regard. Overall, that insistence upon individual rights and prerogatives has been a great strength—it has facilitated entrepreneurship and economic growth, it has protected the exercise of the individual conscience and the search for truth, and it has inspired countless others.

But the ancient Greeks were right when they counseled moderation in all things.

Too much conformity, too much emphasis on community, and we smother liberty; too much individualism, and we lose a necessary unity. We need balance.

But achieving balance requires self-knowledge. It requires a healthy respect for our institutions—a respect that depends upon a basic knowledge of who we are and where we come from.

I’ve used this column before to share depressing survey results: Only 36 percent of Americans can identify the three branches of government; only 21 percent of high school seniors can list two privileges U.S. citizens have that non-citizens do not. The National Assessment of Education Progress 2010 report on civics competencies indicates that less than a quarter of 12th graders are proficient in civics. Etc.

It isn’t only democratic institutions and behaviors that are affected by profound ignorance of our history and government. People in business, science, medicine, social work—anyone trying to navigate 21st century America—requires basic civic information.

We need to connect those dots.•

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Kennedy is a professor of law and public policy at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI. She blogs regularly at www.sheilakennedy.net. She can be reached at skennedy@ibj.com. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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