A law professor and author gave a Columbus audience a master class on why American’s political debate has become less civil and more polarized, and offered some suggestions of how to reverse the trend.

As keynote speaker for this year’s Columbus Human Rights Commission annual meeting Thursday night at The Commons, Sheila Suess Kennedy captivated a crowd of about 350 guests with observations based on her work teaching law and public policy at IUPUI’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

Her areas of expertise include constitutional culture, civil rights and religion and public policy, all of which she touched on in her speech.

Civil literacy, and Americans’ appalling lack of it, was a point Kennedy made in her speech, pointing out a study showing while 43 percent of Oklahoma high school seniors could name the two major political parties in the United States, only 23 percent could name the country’s first president and 27 percent could name the two parts of Congress. Eleven percent of the students surveyed knew how many years a U.S. senator is elected to in a term.

This lack of knowledge about how American government works is one of the primary factors leading to lack of civil engagement in dialogue or the political process, Kennedy said.

“Why does it matter? Well, for one thing, productive civic engagement is based on an accurate understanding of the “rules of the game,” especially, but not exclusively, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights — the documents that frame policy choices in the American system,” she said.

For more on this story, see Saturday’s Republic.

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Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.