Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


What does a citizen in a democratic society need to learn?

By Shawn Healy
I was asked to address this question at an Educator Salon tomorrow hosted by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. In my preparations for the talk, I began by pondering the way in which political knowledge is measured by most experts, namely in the form of multiple choice questions centered on what we should have learned in high school civics (if the course was even offered). Period surveys report "shocking" findings that reveal the dismal state of civic knowledge across our citizenry. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute's report titled Our Fading Heritage that I wrote about last week is but the most recent example.

The Freedom Museum joined the parade ourselves with a 2006 survey demonstrating that Americans are much more adept at identifying the five members of television's Simpson's family than the five freedoms embedded within the First Amendment. Taken together, these measures shame the public, and are often coupled with a call to action. For the Freedom Museum, the Simpson's survey stood as the very validation of our mission, to inspire our visitors to understand, value and protect the First Amendment to expand the scope of freedom for everyone, today and for future generations.

Long ago, I contrived a basic model of effective citizenship for use in my high school government classes. It was premised on the dual principles of knowledge and activism, where individuals are ranked on each count and placed in a corresponding matrix. Logically, effective citizens rank high on each facet, while pundits lack activism, and patrons knowledge. Bench warmers are low in each category. For the purposes of classification, I asked a series of questions and calculated the scores based on these answers. A modified version of this test is posted on the Freedom Museum's web site.

In refining this test for the purposes of tomorrow's talk, I balanced my inner political junkie and the fact that I study political science for a living with the reality that most Americans, when it comes to politics, are "rational misers." This means that they consume political information only sporadically, if at all. Political participation must be placed beside the interests of our jobs, families, friends, and other obligations.

In short, we learn the minimum amount necessary to keep our heads above water, and participate only periodically, mostly in election seasons, and usually only those of the presidential variety. We evaluate candidates on the basis of personality and backgrounds rather than policy positions, and in the end, these practices are inherently rational given the high costs of staying informed and participating at a level beyond voting.

This said, I simply refuse to respond to the aforementioned question with a less than optimal standard by which we may assess our own preparations for our role as citizens in a democratic society. I attempted to stray from the factual questions that characterize the quizzes I lampooned above, but nonetheless raise the bar quite high.

For the sake of a round number, I constructed a ten-question measurement of what a citizen needs to know. It reads as follows:
1. A functional understanding of our structures of government and how they impact our lives.
2. An appreciation for civil liberties so we can remain constantly vigilant should they be threatened.
3. The ability to identify our elected officials, along with their actions in office? Also, do they deserve re-election, and how may we hold them accountable in the interim?
4. What are the major issues facing society and how will candidates for elected office address them?
5. The ability to consider both personal and societal interests.
6. Along the same lines, consideration of global interests alongside those of nation, state, and city/ town.
7. Knowledge of the means of participation in the political process, from campaigns and elections to actual governance.
8. The possession of sound communication skills, including reading, writing, and speaking.
9. Regular media monitoring from a variety of sources, including consideration of information to which we are predisposed to agree and disagree.
10. A proclivity to and comfort with engaging in political discussions, even with individuals who share dissimilar political values.

This list is by no means refined, and I invite your comments and criticisms. Perhaps collectively we can answer this question adequately, as for many of us, myself included, this is our defining mission in life.


Anonymous Matt Aber said...

Hi Sean,
As a fellow government teacher, I am constantly reflecting on the exact question you posed at the beginning of your blog post. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your list and believe your ideas strike at the core of an effective civic education for student citizens preparing to participate in a democratic society. I know I'm asking a lot here, but it would be nice to help students develop an understanding of 20th century american foreign policy history so that they might form their own conclusions as to what America's role in the world should be. Another idea- because American exceptionalism is still a prevailing cultural belief, perhaps helping students understand the factors that help democracy take root in developing nations would be helpful- tolerance, education, economic situation, respect for rights of minorities, etc.

4:21 PM  

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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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