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San Diego Community Leaders Call For Revival In Civics Education

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The Institute for Civic Engagement's 8th annual Restoring Respect Conference at the University of San Diego gets underway this week. This year's theme is Restoring Civic Literacy: Revitalizing Civic Education across our Community.

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Speaker 1: 00:00 It's almost as if we don't speak the same language, people who support the current administration and people who don't seem to see the country through two entirely different lenses, our civic institutions, the legal system, the separation of powers in Washington are all supposed to give us common ground, but if we don't understand those institutions or how the government works or why we should vote or how laws get passed, there really is no common ground. This year at the annual restore respect conference coming up this week at the University of San Diego, the theme is restoring civic literacy, revitalizing civic education across our community. KPBS is a media partner for the restoring civility conference, and joining me by Skype is Judith McConnell presiding justice on the fourth appellate court district in San Diego, justice McConnell, welcome to the program. Thank you very much. And with me in studio is Carl Luna, director of the Institute for Civil Civic Engagement and political science professor at Mesa College and at the University of San Diego. Karl, welcome. Good to be here. Carl, how would you characterize the state of public discourse today?

Speaker 2: 01:10 Well, the state of public discourse is not particularly good. It's not as bad as it was during the civil war, but we don't want it to get that bad. Uh, people who are engaged in politics are talking at each other, not with each other. And a big hunk of the population is just trying to watch game of Thrones and go on with their life even as things were falling apart. And how did this come about, do you think? There are so many different reasons. Marine, we, the economy has changed. We're postindustrial and nobody has really adjusted to that fact. Middle class incomes are stagnating, which made people and see neither party has a good solution to this. So when you don't have a good solution and blame the other side, Carl, how do you think that

Speaker 1: 01:48 change if more people understood how our civil institutions work?

Speaker 2: 01:53 Well, before you can fix something, you have to know how it's supposed to work. And then once you know how it's supposed to work, you can try to fix it. Or he can realize, even if it worked well, it's not going to work well in the future. I mean, you, you, you can repair a 1928 Ford, but unless you can take it to a classic car show, you don't want to drive it all the time. It may well be our institutions need to be changed, but you can't change them till you know how they're supposed to work.

Speaker 1: 02:17 Justice Mcconnell, how would you grade the average person's legal literacy about how courts systems work and why it works that way? Well, the grade is very low. In fact, it's not passionate. Most college graduates don't even know anything about the state court system particularly, or even the federal court system. A huge number of people think that Judge Judy is on the US Supreme Court and the level of civic illiteracy is one of the reasons that our chief justice can tell psycho as taken on improving civic learning as her legacy initiative. And we've been working on this now since she took office in January of 2011 trying to raise the level of the public's understanding of the three branches, particularly the judicial branch. And our focus has been on k 12 although we also are trying to reach out to the adult population. What are some of the ways that you're going about doing that as part of this power of democracy initiative?

Speaker 1: 03:23 One of the things that we can do as judges is we're good at convening people to talk to each other. So we've brought together educators, administrators, stakeholders in the our society who care about our government, legislators, judges and lawyers to talk about what we can do. We want to recognize and honor those programs and those schools that are doing a great job. And in fact the chief justice will be presenting a civic learning award tomorrow to Flora Vista Elementary School, one of the top three schools in the state this year. And we recognize good work and we're trying to improve all of the other work that's going on. And one of the things we've done is working with the state board of Education and the State Department of Education as we've got a civics now back in the history social science framework for many years it was not in the framework. The framework is sort of the overarching guide of what teachers have to teach and that's being rolled out and it has been rolled out by the Department of Education. So improved civics teaching is going to be included all through k through 12 now a chief Supreme Court justice sacco way is going to be giving the keynote at the restoring respect conference tomorrow. Carl, as an educator yourself, what aspects of civic education do you think need restoring

Speaker 2: 04:52 well top to bottom? Kindergarten through college, we were really been focusing for the last 2030 years in education and getting people ready for the workforce. We have kind of sacrificed to degree of getting them ready for society to be actually become vibrant members of their community, to know that they can participate. And if they don't know how to do that, they feel alienated from it, they withdraw from it. And then the real extreme partisans and other side go at it. And we get what we get today.

Speaker 1: 05:17 There are though Karl voters out there who think this is not the time to be civil, this is the time to resist. What do you say to them?

Speaker 2: 05:26 Well, there's sometimes a misunderstanding of what stability means. It doesn't mean we're just polite to each other. Civility is building civilization. It's building the community any way you get engaged to include people, to build a more vibrant community that allows everybody to prosper, that's civil. And sometimes that means challenging things in our community, which get in the way of that get a challenging. Those who want to exclude people from the community and leave us poor, leave us a less engaged. So resistance is an interesting concept, but what are you resisting toward? I prefer the idea of building for the future Justice Mcconnell, the courts sometimes come under criticism when someone disagrees with a particular ruling. Do you find that kind of criticism is often based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how the legal system works?

Speaker 1: 06:12 Uh, I do think that there's some misunderstanding as to what judges are expected to do. Judges are supposed to be fair and impartial. We're not supposed to be partisan and political, and oftentimes the majority wants one thing and the law constitution, for example, requires something that may not be so popular and so people will attack the courts for rendering a decision that they, as the courts have deemed appropriate under the law and following the constitution and the public may not be happy with it. I don't think there's anything wrong with expressions of dissatisfaction with court rulings, but to attack the institution of the courts is a different issue. I think people need to understand that it's very important that we have the third branch of government as a check on the other two branches and that our job is to make sure that the constitution has followed. Okay.

Speaker 2: 07:13 Carl, the restoring respect conferences in its eighth year. What kind of difference do you think it's made in the civic dialogue here in San Diego? I've noticed that we're part of a tapestry that's developed over the last eight, 10 years. There are large number of organizations and community groups now that are engaged in civic engagement, civil discourse with an understanding that we have to build better pathways of talking to each other. So I consider us part of a community of organizations, institutions, colleges, uh, private nonprofits, corporations, which I understand that we don't talk to each other. We're not we the people anymore. I want to let everyone know the restoring respect conference takes place tomorrow at the KROC Institute for Peace and Justice Theater on the USD campus. And it starts at 9:00 AM I've been speaking with justice Judith McConnell of the fourth appellate court district in San Diego and Carl Luna, director of the Institute for Civil Civic Engagement. I want to thank you both very much. Thank you.

Speaker 1: 08:11 Thank you very much.

Speaker 2: 08:17 Okay.

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KPBS Midday Edition is a daily talk show hosted by Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon, keeping San Diegans in the know on everything from politics to the arts.