Larry Riley: Civic literacy falling by the waysideBy Civics-Ed about Education, Learning Center

Only 36 percent of Americans can name the three branches of government. (They are the lobbying branch, the corporate influence branch, and the entitlement branch.)

Half the country doesn’t know how long a U.S Senate or House of Representatives term lasts. (What difference does that make? Eighteen years and 10 years respectively are about the actual average time they occupy the office.)

Only 5 percent of high school seniors can define our country’s system of checks and balances. (This is where government writes checks no matter what the account balances are.)

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so flip: with such rampant ignorance, people might actually believe these witticisms are factual. I’ll go check Facebook right now.

Lots of assessments have documented what should be seen as an appalling lack of civic knowledge, even among college graduates.

One of the more publicized surveys was released five years ago by the conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute. More than half of Americans tested failed the organization’s 33-question, multiple-choice quiz, with an average score under 50 percent. College educators (not educated, but educators) averaged 55 percent.

You can quickly find the quiz online if you want to gauge your own level of civic literacy. Questions were drawn from prior surveys and nationally known exams.

Many people think the decline of civic literacy began in the late 1960s and place much of the blame on local education, which takes lots of blame for lots of problems, sometimes justifiably.

Yet how can one create a legitimate curriculum for civic literacy?

Historically, yes, one can review the types of knowledge people should know about the country’s founding, about the Constitution, the major players, branches of government. History classes should cover much of this.

Yet how would you design a realistic lesson in how Congress works? How an idea becomes a bill and then a law?

Where do you include the need to give lots of money to a congressional candidate so you can get in their door and influence him or her? Or how to slip your bill as a provision into a totally unrelated bill likely to pass. And agree to let a dozen other completely unrelated provisions be slipped in by legislators you’re “compromising” with?

How can you even begin to teach the federal bureaucracy, which no one outside Washington, D.C., can begin to fathom. Or IRS regulations, which no one, including the IRS, understands.

Civics education was left out of No Child Left Behind, which meant they were all left behind in that regard. I suppose the recent emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math won’t help civic education, though “economic and scientific principles” are also, along with history and philosophy of government, lynchpins of the Center for Civic Literacy at IUPUI.

The Center for Civic Literacy formed in 2012 to address the “deficit” Americans show on knowledge of their own government and the “personal, social and political consequences” of this deficit.

Many other universities have similar programs for civic education.

Last weekend, the IUPUI Center held its second annual conference in Indianapolis, ambitiously (and lengthily) titled “Connect the Dots: Assessing the Impact of Civic Literacy Gaps on Democracy, the Economy, and Society While Charting a Path Forward.”

Unfortunately, the conference got zero coverage from news media.

Conferees themselves used a hashtag and tweeted questions or statements limited to 140 characters.

One post during a Saturday session asked the astonishing, and ironic, question, “Is social media partly to blame for civic illiteracy as people take Facebook posts and tweets as facts?”

Among the consequences of the low levels of civic literacy has to be public apathy and disengagement from political processes, from reading the newspaper to voting.

Some readers migrated to online-only editions, where the newspaper’s information has to compete with Facebook messages and Twitter before people make up their mind about what’s true.

Civic literacy also includes civil discourse and debate, and just last week the Pew Research Center released research results that found people regularly using social media “were actually less likely to share their opinions, even offline.”

And certainly online, the findings show people are less likely to weigh in on substantive issues important in a democracy if the topic might be considered controversial. What isn’t in matters of public policy?

We’d all rather read about, and watch, ice-bucket challenges.

To the matter of voting behavior, I’ve been amazed at plunging numbers of people who go to the polls on Election Day.

Consider that in 1975 in the Muncie mayor’s election, 21,650 people turned out to select the city’s chief executive. In 2007, just 12,233 did so, despite a city population up by a few thousand thanks to annexation.

In 2011, turnout was slightly higher than 2007, up to 13,852, but consider that Mayor Dennis Tyler’s vote total, in winning, was lower than the losing mayoral candidate just 20 years ago.

Presidential year elections can still draw in voters, but in 1974’s off-year election, 40,591 Delaware County residents cast votes for county commissioner. Fast forward to 2006, voter turnout in the commissioner’s race fell 25 percent, to 31,214.

Larry Riley teaches English at Ball State University. Email him at lriley@bsu.edu.

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