Democracy & Government

Relearning Citizenship: A View From the Heartland

A Chicago journalist turned teacher talks about the struggle to teach young people about their government — and why she's hopeful.

Relearning Citizenship: A View From the Heartland

Too many people born in this country don't know as much about how it works as these new citizens who had to learn to make the US their home. (Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

It was meant to be funny when former Tonight Show host Jay Leno stuck a microphone in tourists’ faces and asked them basic civics questions. Failing the pop quiz didn’t seem to faze the victims — they were on national TV! In the segment you can see at right, only one person got anything right — knowing and singing the national anthem, played at scores of sports events.

Take A Look: Jay-Walking

Who’s laughing now? This year, there’s even less shame among much of the populace in not knowing much about the country we live in, except it’s the greatest — or was or could be.

The rise of low-information voters (not including the no- and wrong-information ones who believe rumors and lies they read on their smartphones) has people of many political viewpoints worried. Here’s a conservative explaining the term last November and contending that Democrats exploited this growing segment much more effectively than Republicans in 2012.

If anything, this year’s presidential contest proves the exploitation can go both ways. But there are many other signs of a widespread societal problem.

I find myself serving as a teacher of remedial civics to college students who didn’t get the basics when they should have.

As someone who once covered government as a reporter, I find myself serving as a teacher of remedial civics to college students who didn’t get the basics when they should have — in junior high or high school. I’m not the only one.

Consider these eye-rolling examples from student assignments, shared on a listserv for journalism professors:

  • In Illinois: “Gov. Rauner ruled that the bill was unconstitutional.”
  • In Arizona: “Gov. Doug Ducey is a member of and in charge of the Tucson City Council.”
  • In a list of story ideas, a student, on her own authority, wrote that “a lot of terrorists come across the US-Mexico border” and she wanted to investigate.
  • In New York: Students answering the question, “What is Brexit?” on the first day of the semester replied, “Something to do with the moon” and “Sounds like a prescription drug.”

The way students write about legislation too often reflects little to no knowledge of how a bill becomes a law in this country, much less any credible information about other parts of the world. These are students who have been admitted to college after securing high school diplomas and degrees. When you consider that international students frequently demonstrate a firmer grasp of the facts and that immigrants who wish to become citizens must pass the naturalization exam on English and civics, it gives a whole new meaning to “American exceptionalism.”

Yet there are signs of hope: When Khizr Khan, a lawyer whose son died in Iraq fighting for the United States, held his copy of the US Constitution high on national television at the Democratic National Convention, the gesture inspired people to buy their own versions, creating an unexpected summer best-seller.

Despite its notorious history of “pay to play” and incarcerated ex-governors, Illinois, the state where I live and teach, is also an incubator of good-government initiatives.

The Mikva Challenge

Early to the party was the late Abner Mikva, who served in the state legislature, in Congress, on the federal bench and as an adviser to presidents before he died in July at age 90. Part of his reputation as a civics paragon was his famous story (repeated in almost every one of his obituaries) of seeking to volunteer for election duty as an eager young University of Chicago law student and being told at the ward office, “We don’t want nobody nobody sent.”

In 1997, he and his wife, Zoe, founded the Mikva Challenge to bring civic education and experiences to Chicago children.

After a long successful run in Chicago, reaching more than 2,000 students each year, the Mikva Challenge’s Democracy in Action program is going national, with new bases in Los Angeles and Washington DC.

Reviving civics education

The Robert R. McCormick Foundation, based in Chicago and built on the fortune of the Chicago Tribune’s founder, reorganized in 2015 to make journalism a part of its Democracy Program. McCormick’s website explains the connection: “Woven throughout the program is a focus on the civic empowerment gap and support for the First Amendment.”

As part of this emphasis, McCormick took the lead in a significant bipartisan victory: a return to one semester of required civics education in Illinois public schools, starting with this year’s entering high school freshmen. Gov. Bruce Rauner, a billionaire Republican, has had such bad relations with the Democratically held legislature that the state had no budget last fiscal year and only a stopgap measure for this one. Yet the bill to restore civics education got his backing along with that of Republican and Democratic lawmakers. To bolster support for the measure, which Rauner signed into law last August, Shawn Healy, a Ph.D. on the staff of McCormick, produced revealing data:

Healy, with his foundation firmly behind him, did not stop once the bill was passed. He announced a fund to speed implementation, including professional development for teachers and related resources.

Although the law only went into effect this semester, “Democracy Schools” across the state have been sharing resources for the last two years. Even in Chicago, where teachers threatened to strike (again) this fall, a public high school became a member of this growing coalition in 2016.

Columbia Links

I know from working with teens and teachers in Chicago Public Schools that much good happens within them, despite violence that occurs frighteningly close to certain schools and creates a bad reputation for the city that’s been exacerbated by the words of Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump.

I’ve met smart, pragmatic idealists …who are figuring out ways to teach effectively in underfunded schools and stem the growth of civic illiteracy.

Nearly 10 years ago, I co-founded Columbia Links, a program to teach urban teens to use journalism values and skills to report problems and solutions on issues directly affecting their lives. Through town halls, publications and media appearances, C-Links students bring their reporting and perspective to the wider community.

McCormick Foundation has been our major funder. I’d never written a grant proposal before, but over the last decade, through that process, I’ve met smart, pragmatic idealists at foundations and nonprofits who are figuring out ways to teach effectively in underfunded schools and stem the growth of civic illiteracy. Of course, the challenges for big-city public school students (in particular) are daunting. Many Chicago Public Schools students enter schools each day through metal detectors. In our summer academy, a 15-year-old from Austin, a West Side neighborhood where nearly 100,000 mostly African-American people live, revealed in an essay that he had never been downtown before his Columbia Links interview at our South Loop college.

News Literacy

Chicago is also one of the hubs of the News Literacy Project, founded by Alan Miller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Los Angeles Times who is now devoting himself to educating children in grades 6-12 on how to be better news consumers. The 7-year-old project, whose volunteer mentors are journalists past and present, has established programs in New York, Washington, Chicago and Houston. Next is Los Angeles. It is also expanding its reach through digital resources, such as the “checkology” virtual classroom, a new e-learning platform.

In an interview, Peter Adams, senior vice president of educational programs for the News Literacy Project, said the platform is free for teachers (or home-schooling parents) who register now during its soft launch, but added that NLP plans to charge school systems once the pilot program concludes. Public schools systems in Miami-Dade County, Chicago, Washington DC, and elsewhere have shown interest, Adams said. The “premium” version, allowing individual student logins and learning management tools for teachers, has already been used by more than 50 teachers and 2,200 students in 15 states and the District of Columbia.

The curriculum is divided into four major modules, with individual lessons in each. Tracie Potts of NBC News Channel hosts an introductory segment dividing information into seven “zones” — news, opinion, entertainment, advertising, publicity, propaganda and raw information. Adams said students then apply their new communication evaluation skills to a case study: the 2014 shooting of teenager Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri.

In the neighborhoods of Chicago, “the News Literacy Project allows an opportunity for my students to experience worlds and ideas that are so different from the lives that they lead on their blocks,” said Carol Moran, who told NLP that she used units it developed for five years in her English classes at the Chicago Military Academy in the city’s Bronzeville neighborhood. The lessons provided “a deeper understanding of the world that they are in than any textbook lesson,” she noted, citing an example that resonated with her students, some of whom are in ROTC as a path to college and future service. The South Side students were able to have a video conversation with Nancy Youseff, who covered the Iraqi war and the Pentagon for McClatchy News Service and is now a senior correspondent for The Daily Beast.

The project’s data analysis shows “students who complete NLP units say they are more likely to become civically engaged. They are more inclined to create blog posts, correct a mistake they find online and vote in elections when they are old enough to do so.”

SUNY Stony Brook

Though it’s located far from Chicago, any discussion of news literacy should include the School of Journalism at Stony Brook University on Long Island, part of New York’s state university system. It is a leader in the movement, thanks to Howard Schneider.

He led Newsday to eight Pulitzer Prizes before becoming the founding dean of Stony Brook’s School of Journalism. Schneider experimented with versions of a news literacy course and eventually convinced top school administrators and faculty peers to require it in the core curriculum at a school where the most popular major among the nearly 17,000 undergraduates is biology.

Schneider founded The News Literacy Center with support from major foundations. He and his team have taken the idea to many countries, several with traditions and systems of government distinctly different from ours, including China, Russia and Vietnam. The News Literacy Center provides all its materials — including detailed lesson plans, interactive units and videos — free.

At my arts and media college, I’m teaching a new course this fall, my first online venture: “Truth, Lies and Accuracy in the Digital Age.” No prerequisites. I hope the students will emerge as savvier citizens.

Is it having any effect?

Yes, in most cases.

Yet I was dismayed to see, in their latest news consumption log, after weeks of exposure to fact-checking resources, that one student cited Breitbart “news” (quotation marks mine); another, Alex Jones.

Oops. Wrong Jones.

Interesting, I thought momentarily, she knows about Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, where the Pulitzer Prize-winning former New York Timesman used to work.

Oops. Wrong Jones.

A millisecond later, I realized she meant the proud conspiracy theorist described in this piece as “Rush Limbaugh on steroids” and “a beat poet of paranoia.” Austin American Statesman political writer Jonathan Tilove reports that this Jones is a leading source of information for Trump, fueling his supporters’ anger through his website, radio show and embrace by Matt Drudge. Hillary Clinton referred to these outlets as part of the “alt.right.” President Obama called it a “swamp of crazy.”

This well-reported piece shows we mild-mannered advocates of news and civic literacy have much work to do. We must engage our students viscerally as well as factually. How?

The Mikva Challenge offers an example. Last winter, the program took 15-year-old Wagner Escobedo, who was brought to the United States as a baby from Guatemala, along with other teens, to experience the Iowa caucuses. Now, Escobedo is president of his South Central Los Angeles high school.

Nancy Day

Nancy Day is an associate professor of journalism at Columbia College Chicago and a former faculty member at Boston University. She covered politics and state government for the Associated Press in Los Angeles and San Francisco and for metropolitan dailies in Chicago and San Francisco. She has written for national magazines and is a former Nieman and Fulbright fellow.