Much is being written recently about the need for improved civic literacy on the part of both young people and the general population. We’re told that the level of awareness and understanding about our governance and its foundational documents, e.g. the United States Constitution, is abysmally low.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana recently presented a panel discussion on the subject—“ The Constitution— Peruse it or Lose it”. The 3 panelists (2 educators and a state Senator) emphasized the need to improve civic education— and education in general – to better ensure that our public policies align with our fundamental values.
Panelist Sheila Suess Kennedy, professor of Law and Policy the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI and Director of IUPUI’s Center for Civic Literacy, presented interesting observations which are quoted here, excerpted from her recent essay in the ACLU-IN’s newsletter Carrying the Torch.(Spring, 2013)
“…this is a country based upon covenant, upon what I have elsewhere called the American Idea. … What we (Americans) do share is a set of values, and when we don’t know what those values are or where they came from, we lose a critical part of what makes us Americans.
“At the end of the day, our public policies must be aligned with and supportive of our most fundamental values; the people we elect must demonstrate that they understand, respect and live up to those values; and the electorate has to be sufficiently knowledgeable about those values to hold public officials accountable.
“In a country that celebrates individual rights and respects individual liberty, there will always be dissent, differences of opinion, and struggles for power. But there are different kinds of discord, and they aren’t all equal.
“When we argue from within the constitutional culture – when we argue about the proper application of the American idea to new situations or to previously marginalized populations — we strengthen our bonds and learn how to bridge our differences.
“When our divisions or debates pit powerful forces trying to rewrite our history and most basic rules against citizens who lack the wherewithal to enforce those rules, we undermine the American idea and erode social trust.”
The U.S. Constitution begins with “We the people..” The government is us.
The people we elect and hire to perform the necessary tasks of policy-making actually work for us. Thus we have an indisputable right to know what they are doing and to provide input and comment on what they might be considering. And we have every right to expect them to be responsive, forthcoming, and accountable in their conduct of the public’s business. This is essential for open government, civic engagement, and participatory democracy.
Many of the more specialized skills for practicing the principle of open government and thus also civic engagement have been acquired slowly and at times painstakingly by the Heart of the River Coalition. We’ve met with various officials over the past several months as we to try to learn more about the planned reservoir project. We’ve also encountered resistance, obfuscation, as well as police intimidation, and suppression of free speech at some public meetings. At several coalition meetings, we’ve discussed the rights of public access, using a comprehensive document titled Handbook on Indiana’s Public Access Laws, produced by the Office of the Public Access Counselor and the Attorney General.
Often, some officials have appeared to be in the dark themselves. They’ve explained that the dam/reservoir plan is being promoted by a private entity (the Anderson Corporation for Economic Development) which is not technically subject to the requirements of public access and public disclosure which are normally required of public agencies/officials under Indiana’s two main access statutes— the Open Door Law (Indiana Code 5-14-1.5) and the Access to Public Records Act (I.C. 5-14-1.5).
As the plan continues to be better understood, with more information more widely shared with the public officials who are being asked to look upon it favorably, the level of civic literacy/engagement has been improving— by both the plan’s skeptics as well as many public officials who better understand the issues and concerns– as well as the public’s inherent right to know. In the end, we expect policy decisions which best align with our foundational values and “the American Idea”.