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Above: Scott Wylie (left), executive director of Pro Bono Indiana, and Charles Dunlap (right), president and CEO of the Indiana Bar Foundation, conclude the bar foundation’s 2023 Indiana Civics Summit. 

Speaking to a group of teachers, business leaders, and community professionals Thursday in Indianapolis, David Bobb asked the group to think about the United States’ upcoming milestone birthday.

“Fast forward just for a minute to July 4, 2026,” Bobb, president of the Bill of Rights Institute, said. “What’s that going to be when we mark our 250th birthday as a country? Is it going to be a moment of celebration? Is it going to be a moment of lament? Is it going to be a moment of division?”

Bobb asked the question during the Indiana Bar Foundation’s 2023 Indiana Civics Summit. The daylong event at Ivy Tech Community College included a series of panel discussions with experts from around the country and keynote speakers, all focusing on improving civic education and civic engagement in the Hoosier state.

Panelists throughout the day cited national survey findings and polling data that show an increasingly divided country and a decline in civic knowledge. That does not bode well for a very happy birthday bash but Bobb proposed an antidote that calls for Americans to renew the bonds of civic friendship. He said individuals should seek out and connect with others who do not share their views and have civil conversations about challenging topics.

“I think that is the best way to pull us out of a conspiratorial mindset,” Bobb said. “It’s the best way to pull us out of a mindset that would say, ‘We can ban our way out of these problems.’ Civic friendship can be reconstituted in America but it’s going to take a lot of hard work.”

The summit highlighted some of the work that needs to be done and how educators and non-educators alike can promote civics. The event included five panel discussions which examined civic education along with the role of the private business and the legal community in fostering civic engagement. Also, three members of the Fishers High School 2022 Indiana We the People state champions gave a demonstration of the We the People program by answering questions about the Constitution.

Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch opened the summit and Richard Haass, former diplomat and current president of the Council on Foreign Relations, appeared virtually to discuss his new book, “The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens.”

Charles Dunlap, president and CEO of the Indiana Bar Foundation, announced the launch of the Indiana Civics Coalition and the Indiana Business Alliance for Civics. Both groups will work to improve Indiana’s civic health.

The summit came just as Indiana is preparing to enhance its civic education with the rollout of a new civics class that will be taught to all sixth grade students starting in the spring semester of 2024. The Hoosier state will be one of just seven states in the country that requires a civics course for middle schoolers.

Retired Rep. Tony Cook was the author of House Enrolled Act 1384 which mandated every school corporation, charter school and state accredited nonpublic school teach a one-semester civics education course to middle school students. The bill passed through the Statehouse during the 2021 session with strong bipartisan support and was signed into law by Gov. Eric Holcomb.

Cook, a former government and economics teacher and school superintendent, arrived in the Indiana General Assembly in 2014 with civics education on his agenda. However, he waited to introduce the bill until he had matured as a state representative and built coalitions with other legislators.

Cook saw the opportunity to get his civics education bill passed at an especially divisive time in the nation. In the winter of 2021, the country was still struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 presidential election had left painful bruises. Indiana was still grappling with the aftermath of George Floyd protests in May of 2020 and a previous attack on a Carmel synagogue.

“All of that hit the fan during that time period and made it very evident to most people we needed to improve everyone, the adults’ and the kids’ understanding of civic responsibilities and how our government works,” Cook told The Indiana Citizen.

Crouch used her remarks to call attention to the current civic climate. An advocate for civics education, the lieutenant governor chaired the 2020 Civics Education Task Force and now leading the new Indiana Civics Education Commission.

She cited to the 2022 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center which found just 47% of U.S. adults could name all three branches of government, a drop from 56% in 2021 and the first decline on this question since 2016. Yet, she noted, a poll by the Jack Miller Center found 89% of parents agree that civic education about the nation’s founding principles is  “very important” and more than 92% of parents believe that the achievements of key historical figures should be taught even if their view do not align with modern values.

Crouch said the “will and the way” to improve Americans’ knowledge and understanding of democracy was gathered at the summit. She applauded the efforts of the Indiana Bar Foundation for its support of civics education through programs like We the People and said the new middle school class will teach students about the foundation of government, the functions of government and the role of citizens.

“It’s often been said that knowledge is power,” Crouch said. “And by increasing our young Hoosiers’ knowledge of civics, we will be creating a more powerful citizenry that will be able to lead Indiana into the future.”

Chris McGrew, professor at Indiana State University and president-elect of the Indiana Council for the Social Studies, said teachers will need help in making the new sixth grade civics course successful.

Since the class will not be able to cover all aspects of the topic, teachers will have to give “appealing invitations” which will get the students engaged and inspired to continue learning on their own. But teachers’ skills have diminished as they may have taken few U.S. history or political sciences courses in college and the amount of class time available to spend on social studies has been siphoned off to math and language arts.

“We need resources. Teachers need training because if we just have kids memorize the citizen exam, we will not change our position and civic participation will still be at the bottom,” McGrew said, predicting that Indiana would fall to last place in civic education nationally. “We need to engage students, like you were engaged, get them excited and really provide time for teachers to learn this stuff, face-to-face in professional development.”

Indiana teachers will be promoting civics at a time when the nation is deeply divided and people are tending not to socialize with those who hold opposing political views. Bobb cited statistics which underscored this segmentation of American society. Spousal agreement in politics has increased from 60% in the 1960s to about 85% today. Also children who agreed with their parents has risen from 56% in 1980 to 81% today.

Emma Humphries, chief education officer at iCivics, said the divide appears when the discussion on civics education turns to the details of what will actually be taught. The classroom, she said, may be the only place where students can learn “how to be citizens” and talk to others who have different points of view.

However, the controversy that is erupting over curriculum can have a chilling effect on educators so that they shy away even from teaching about elections.

 “Can you image sitting in a social studies class during an election year and not talking about the election? It is unconscionable,” Humphries said, adding that teachers need to be defended against false accusations that they are indoctrinating students. “I know social studies teachers all across this great land and they’re trying to do right by their kids. So we need to have their backs in terms of policy and in terms of administrative support.”

The summit was sponsored by CivXNow; Indiana University Center of Representative Government; Church Church Hittle and Antrim; The Indiana Citizen; Business for America; Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath; the Indiana State Bar Association; and Krieg DeVault. — Marilyn Odendahl

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