Civil Literacy Should Be on the Pence Agenda

January 7, 2013

by Andrea Neal

For a country that is saturated 24/7 in media, our ignorance of politics is stunning. Sixty-two percent of us can’t identity the governor, according to a survey by Xavier University. Three-fourths can’t answer the question “What does the judiciary branch do?”

The Indiana Civic Health Index conducted in 2011 placed Indiana near the bottom on other key indicators of civic responsibility. For example, we rank 48th in the nation in voting and 43rd in the number of citizens registered to vote.

In his new role as Indiana governor, Mike Pence should take the lead in confronting civic illiteracy, which threatens our ability to deal with problems from unemployment to immigration to taxes.

“Civic illiteracy makes us less likely to exercise freedom by understanding and engaging in our public life,” warns Xavier’s Center for the Study of the American Dream. “Failure to achieve and maintain this understanding inevitably makes us more susceptible to manipulation and abuses of power.”

“We the People,” launched in 1987 with the blessing of Congress to mark the bicentennial of the Constitution, is a curriculum about democracy and constitutional history for elementary, middle and high school students. It uses a simulated congressional hearing format to test students on their analytical skills.

Congress stripped the program of funding in 2011, but it’s continued to reach about 6,000 students a year here thanks to the commitment of the state’s lawyers and the Indiana Bar Foundation. Studies show that students who take part in We the People vote and get involved in politics at higher rates than other citizens.

A $300,000 line item in the state budget would replace what Indiana used to get from the feds and make it possible to expand the program to schools that can’t afford it on their own. The money would help fund textbooks and professional development for teachers.

Winston Churchill famously said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” Wouldn’t it be grand for Indiana if the opposite were true?

Andrea Neal is an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. A version of this essay was part of a longer article in the Jan. 6 Indianapolis Star. Contact her at aneal@inpolicy.org.

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