ILNews

Effort seeks to revive citizens' civic interest

Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share

The message from lawyers, lawmakers, and educators is clear: Civic education is suffering, and along with it, our country. But no one seems certain how to convince people to care about civics.

Days after Congress passed a budget that cut $35 million for civic education, former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton announced on April 19 that the National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC) will soon begin work on the Indiana Civic Health Index. The project will assess the civic engagement of Indiana’s population, and findings are expected to be announced in September.

“Those of us interested in this project are concerned … because there is an awful lot of evidence that suggests an awful lot of Americans are less and less interested in civics, and if that’s the case, the entire democracy is in jeopardy,” Hamilton said. Many people who had gathered in the Indiana Supreme courtroom for the announcement nodded solemnly in agreement.

The NCoC will collect census data and turn it over to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service. There, the staff will crunch the numbers to produce statistics on civic life in Indiana, including voter turnout, community involvement, and civic education.

Since 2006, the NCoC has conducted a yearly national Civic Health Index. Comparing results of the indexes with research studies conducted in the 1970s and thereafter, the NCoC reports that most forms of civic engagement measured in the index – like voter turnout and volunteerism – have fallen over the past three decades. In 2008, the NCoC began offering state-level indexes. Ohio, California, and Florida were the first states to receive such a report, as they have every year since. In Florida, the results helped support legislation that aims to improve civic education in middle schools.

Florida Rep. Charles McBurney, R-Jacksonville, said he cited results of the Florida Civic Health Index when he introduced the Sandra Day O’Connor Civics Education Act. He said that due to the state’s weak economy, it took almost three years to win approval for the bill, which passed with a unanimous vote in 2010. The bill states that beginning with the 2012-13 school year, middle school students must complete a one-semester civics course, in addition to meeting other already established requirements.

“We have a requirement of reading at every grade level. What the bill also requires, since you’ve got to have reading anyway at every grade level, some of that reading has got to include civic reading,” McBurney said.

By the 2013-2014 school year, the end-of-course assessment will account for 30 percent of a student’s course grade. The following year, students will be required to pass the exam in order to pass the course.
 

kennedy-sheila-suess-mug Kennedy

He said the exam wording was included in the bill because the Florida Legislature wanted to ensure that teachers devoted proper attention to the course.

“We actually had a requirement for civic education, but they weren’t teaching it,” McBurney said.

Sheila Suess Kennedy, professor and director of public affairs programs for the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis, is familiar with the challenges of teaching students about civics and of getting teachers to teach civics.

“Indiana has fabulous standards,” she said. “But we don’t use them. We don’t apply them.”

Kennedy, who joined IUPUI in 1998 as an assistant professor of law and public policy, said she sometimes gives her undergraduate students a pop quiz: the U.S. Citizenship Test. Foreign students, she said, always fare better on the test than their American-born classmates.

She said the lack of civic knowledge is not a new problem, but the changing nature of the country points to a need for pushing civic education.

“The other kinds of identities we share as Americans are fewer than before. We have even less in common if we can’t all say what’s in the Constitution,” she said. “Our differences as individuals – race, religion, political affiliation – none of that would matter if we had really strong civic education.”

Educators have tried again and again to find a way to make young people care about civics, “but nothing seems to take,” she said.

A civics success story

The Indiana Bar Foundation has tried to revive civic interest among young people with its programs, Project Citizen and We the People. Project Citizen, for grades 5 through 9, intends to help children work together to accomplish tasks like determining which level of government can best handle a particular problem. We the People, for grades 5, 8, and 12, focuses on understanding the Constitution. The course involves mock congressional hearings, where student groups compete with each other to give the best answers. For high school students, the course culminates in a national final in Washington, D.C., with a team from each state, the District of Columbia, and the Northern Mariana Islands competing for the championship.
 

wepeople-15col Munster High School’s 12-person We the People team, with teacher Michael Gordon, after winning the Indiana championship. Gordon and the students will compete in the national finals April 30 through May 2 in Washington, D.C. (Photo courtesy Indiana Bar Foundation )

This year, Munster High School will be sending a team to nationals for the fifth time.

Munster High School teacher Michael Gordon will take his team of nine seniors and three juniors to the finals, April 30 to May 2. He said there are many reasons the team has been so successful.

“We have a school administration that is unbelievably supportive,” Gordon said. “We have a community that was willing to give time, energy, resources, finances – including a host of people who come into our Monday evening practices.”

Students may compete only once at the high-school level, but he said the students continue to be involved in the program, even if they can’t compete. Juniors who participate will volunteer as seniors to help the class.

Chuck Dunlap Dunlap

“Not to mention that the current team goes and recruits for the next year and talks about the impact that the program is going to have,” he said. “The program becomes part of them.”

Morgan said that last year, Munster sent a team of 28 students to the national finals. Even with financial support from the IBF, the school needed to come up with between $6,000 and $7,000 to cover the costs of the trip.

“The school sent fundraising letters to alumni – 65 percent of those letters came back with checks,” he said. “Half of those letters went to kids that were still in college.”

We the People and Project Citizen lost all federal funding this year with the passage of the national budget. But Chuck Dunlap, IBF executive director, said he is confident the programs will continue, thanks to support from the legal community. Already in place is a fundraising program – An Hour for Civics – which asks attorneys to donate the amount of one billable service hour in support of the programs.

Kennedy lamented the loss of funding for the program. “We the People is the single most effective civics program of its kind,” she said.•

ADVERTISEMENT

Post a comment to this story

COMMENTS POLICY
We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
 
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
 
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in Indiana Lawyer editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
 
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
 
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.
 

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by

facebook - twitter on Facebook & Twitter

Indiana State Bar Association

Indianapolis Bar Association

Evansville Bar Association

Allen County Bar Association

Indiana Lawyer on Facebook

facebook
ADVERTISEMENT
Subscribe to Indiana Lawyer
  1. I grew up on a farm and live in the county and it's interesting that the big industrial farmers like Jeff Shoaf don't live next to their industrial operations...

  2. So that none are misinformed by my posting wihtout a non de plume here, please allow me to state that I am NOT an Indiana licensed attorney, although I am an Indiana resident approved to practice law and represent clients in Indiana's fed court of Nth Dist and before the 7th circuit. I remain licensed in KS, since 1996, no discipline. This must be clarified since the IN court records will reveal that I did sit for and pass the Indiana bar last February. Yet be not confused by the fact that I was so allowed to be tested .... I am not, to be clear in the service of my duty to be absolutely candid about this, I AM NOT a member of the Indiana bar, and might never be so licensed given my unrepented from errors of thought documented in this opinion, at fn2, which likely supports Mr Smith's initial post in this thread: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1592921.html

  3. When I served the State of Kansas as Deputy AG over Consumer Protection & Antitrust for four years, supervising 20 special agents and assistant attorneys general (back before the IBLE denied me the right to practice law in Indiana for not having the right stuff and pretty much crushed my legal career) we had a saying around the office: Resist the lure of the ring!!! It was a take off on Tolkiem, the idea that absolute power (I signed investigative subpoenas as a judge would in many other contexts, no need to show probable cause)could corrupt absolutely. We feared that we would overreach constitutional limits if not reminded, over and over, to be mindful to not do so. Our approach in so challenging one another was Madisonian, as the following quotes from the Father of our Constitution reveal: The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse. We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties. I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty, but also by the abuse of power. All men having power ought to be mistrusted. -- James Madison, Federalist Papers and other sources: http://www.constitution.org/jm/jm_quotes.htm RESIST THE LURE OF THE RING ALL YE WITH POLITICAL OR JUDICIAL POWER!

  4. My dear Mr Smith, I respect your opinions and much enjoy your posts here. We do differ on our view of the benefits and viability of the American Experiment in Ordered Liberty. While I do agree that it could be better, and that your points in criticism are well taken, Utopia does indeed mean nowhere. I think Madison, Jefferson, Adams and company got it about as good as it gets in a fallen post-Enlightenment social order. That said, a constitution only protects the citizens if it is followed. We currently have a bevy of public officials and judicial agents who believe that their subjectivism, their personal ideology, their elitist fears and concerns and cause celebs trump the constitutions of our forefathers. This is most troubling. More to follow in the next post on that subject.

  5. Yep I am not Bryan Brown. Bryan you appear to be a bigger believer in the Constitution than I am. Were I still a big believer then I might be using my real name like you. Personally, I am no longer a fan of secularism. I favor the confessional state. In religious mattes, it seems to me that social diversity is chaos and conflict, while uniformity is order and peace.... secularism has been imposed by America on other nations now by force and that has not exactly worked out very well.... I think the American historical experiment with disestablishmentarianism is withering on the vine before our eyes..... Since I do not know if that is OK for an officially licensed lawyer to say, I keep the nom de plume.

ADVERTISEMENT