Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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I’m trying to put together a roundtable on ISI’s civic literacy report for the APSA’s annual conference on teaching and learning, to be held in San Jose, CA, February 22-24, 2008. If you’re interested, please let me know ASAP, as the deadline is coming up next week. I think I might be able to entice a couple of people from ISI to join us in a conversation about the report and its implications.

Discussions - 9 Comments

I was actually at the ISI Miller Institute in Colorado this summer when Josiah Bunting gave a lecture on that report called "The Coming Crisis in Citizenship". While I'm broadly sympathetic with his views, I found the survey the report is based upon to be tendentious in many respects and the conclusions drawn to be a little dramatic. In other words, I think we certainly have a civic literacy problem and that higher education contributes to this in many ways but I'm not so sure that a crisis is around the corner.

One very unusual characteristic of university education today is that on the one hand they have transparently become deeply politicized in their interpretation of their goals and of the curriculum they use as an instrument in satisfying those goals. On the other hand, they refuse to allow that policization to be in the service of any positive view of civic obligation; even when one hears talk of civic mindedness it is often in the vernacular of dissent. So it seems as is if we get a de-nationalized view of their insistence that everything is political.

I agree with Ivan's suspicion that the data doesn't quite support the claim, and I'm also suspicious about anyone touting a "crisis in" or a concern about "literacy" that's not literacy in the most obvious sense. I also agree that there's something good about highlighting a real problem.

So, either of you want to sign onto a roundtable? With enough takers, I'll propose one for the MPSA too.

I actually just sent you an email volunteering.

But guys, you can't raise money or inspire action without a "crisis," can you? ;-) Michael Medved actually had a very intelligent segment on his program yesterday in which he criticized both the right and the left for always pointing to perceived "crises" and ignoring the obvious ways in which our country is thriving.

Because I agree with Julie/Medved but don't want to be a big deal about it in a way that might make ISI look bad, and because I've actually signed on to the advisory panel that aims to improve upon this project, I really don't want to do it.

I can't help but agree that there is a problem but not a crisis, and that the sometimes shrill insistence that the sky is falling is more harmful than helpful. If I could sit on the panel and raise this objection to the study while also still acknowledging and discussing the actual problem, I would be happy to do that.

Actually, I do think it is a crisis, in this sense--we are starting to see real world effects of the lack of civic literacy, and these effects are not going to lead to anything good. The time to solve this problem is now, before it gets really out of hand and becomes a real crisis, of the civil disorder kind. So it is a crisis in the way anti-communism was in a crisis in 1979--the time to act had come before extremis was truly reached.


Exhibit A is the MoveOn attack on General Petraeus. The Founders, steeped as they were in the stories of the old Roman Republic, understood far better than many today seem to do that if you politicize the military, then after that the military is politicized. It becomes a special interest group with its own agenda, and with a certain felicity for being able to impose its will. There is a reason why George Washington loved Addison's Cato so much. Well, it may have inspired him to behave correctly, but we should never forget that the real Cato the Younger didn't have a happy ending.


Exhibit B is the growing criminalization of politics, as seen in numerous examples (Gonzalez "scandal", Plame "leak" investigation). Exhibit C is the growing politicization of crime by ambitious prosecutors (Nifong, Spitzer, et al). Exhibit D are things such as the Kelo v. New London eminent domain case, where citizens are slowly becoming subjects. Exhibit E is the behaviour of the United States Congress, with its gerrymandered safe districts (feudal realms) and penchant for pork.


I think all these things have common root causal factors--1.) a lack of an intuitive understanding of civics; 2.) lack of knowledge of the bounds of legitimate conflict and conduct in politics (or lack of belief that there are any bounds); and 3.) lack of an awareness of the bigger picture concerning the mutual relationships between government, society, and individual.


Having already lost whatever knowledge of civics they may have had, today's pols and politicos can only judge their actions by polls, ballots, and what the MSM will allow. Nothing deeper.


And I think it is a crisis because if you read enough history, you see that sometimes it really only takes 20-30 years or so for a societal change to take hold, and then there is no going back. And how long has this been brewing? This society is operating on inertia. But friction eventually slows down all things unless more energy is added.


If we don't act now, then the heavy lifting needed ten-20 years from now to reinculcate the spirit of Americanism may be more than we can achieve. Nations change, and people change, and not always for the better. Latifundia, anybody? A college education used to provide that knowledge because you learned enough ancient and medieval history and politics/philosophy for the lesson to take home. No longer.

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