An offhand comment by a student in a class led by School of Public and Environmental Affairs faculty member Sheila Suess Kennedy a few years back is making a difference in IUPUI’s academic circles these days.
Kennedy is a SPEA faculty member and a former executive director of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union. She was also a lawyer who served as a corporation counsel for the City of Indianapolis during the William H. Hudnut Administration (1976-92), and she is a passionate advocate for civic literacy.
The student’s remark — she didn’t know the identity of James Madison (the fourth U.S. president) when Kennedy asked a rhetorical question about what Madison would have thought about Internet pornography, based on his constitutional writings — challenged the longtime faculty member to find an answer to the “civic deficit” that affects students and Indiana residents.
To address the problem, Kennedy launched the Center for Civic Literacy in SPEA thanks to an IUPUI Signature Center grant. The center is the organizer for the upcoming “Connect the Dots” Civic Literacy Conference Aug. 22 to 24 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in downtown Indianapolis.
Kennedy also established the new “Journal of Civic Literacy.” Its first issue, published on July 1, featured a cover story by Supreme Court Justice David Souter, in addition to contributions by members of the center faculty and conference leaders.
“Low civic literacy doesn’t just damage the political structure,” Kennedy said. “It makes it difficult to do business and even affects science and medicine, even social work. We want to raise awareness of those issues.”
Kennedy hopes the conference will provide insights about civic life both for scholars and the general public, and offer advances to essential knowledge and skills in what citizens need to know to navigate the 21st century. The center is working closely with the Indiana Bar Foundation, scholars on the IU Bloomington campus, people from other schools and universities and members of the center’s National Advisory Committee, among others.
Kennedy believes the Journal of Civic Literacy could play an increasing role in the success of both the center and the conference.
“Believe it or not, in a world where I thought there was an academic journal for everything, there was no interdisciplinary journal devoted to the role of civic knowledge,” Kennedy said. She believes that the journal can take a holistic look at the role played by civic knowledge across disciplinary domains.
“One research center is not going to ‘cure’ a problem of this magnitude,” Kennedy said. “We need to determine what happens to a diverse society when citizens are ignorant of the only thing disparate groups have in common.”
by Ric Burrous