Civic Literacy and Changing the Meaning of Pi

August 26, 2013

Civic Literacy and Changing the Meaning of Pi

In late 19th century Indiana, the legislature tried to pass a bill that would change the meaning of Pi to 3.2.

For the sake of our social science audience I won’t get into the math, but basically, a gentleman who “proved” the theory, and copyrighted it, generously offered to allow Indiana to use his method for free if they adopted his mathematical gift as law.

And here’s where civic literacy (or a lack thereof) enters. “To anyone who passed the aforementioned high school geometry class, this bill was patently absurd. Apparently Indiana legislators weren’t a pack of math whizzes, though.” The bill passed unanimously. “No, not a single one of Indiana’s 67 House members raised an eyebrow at a proof that effectively redefined pi as 3.2.[1]

Fortunately, Purdue University Professor C.A. Waldo was in the audience and pulled aside a group of Senators to advise them that maybe rewriting math wasn’t a good idea.

Turns out the legislators had no earthly idea what was in the bill; they just knew that if they got it passed, they could use the formula for free.

Professor Waldo was successful in convincing them this was poor legislative reasoning, and the bill faded to comical legislative history.

But the reason we’re discussing the intersection of math and civics is because this story was told at IUPUI’s Center for Civic Literacy (CCL) National Advisory Committee meeting.

Indiana University’s Signature Center Initiative and the IUPUI School of Public and Environmental Affairs provided seed money to launch the new research center, and the interdisciplinary CCL was given three years to prove itself worthy of permanent funding and Signature Center status.

This weekend, its National Advisory Committee takes the first step in that process.

Those of you familiar with the field of civic education will see that they’ve consulted some heavy hitters.

But you’ll also see some a lot of new names. And some very new subject areas, including bioethics, social work, business and religion.

I sat in on the “Education” breakout. But instead of the usual suspects delivering papers on what’s wrong with civic education today, I witnessed a truly interdisciplinary conversation.

Dr. David Stocum with the Center for Regenerative Biology and Medicine at IUPUI served on the panel, and Dr. Eric Meslin, Director of the Indiana University Center for Bioethics moderated [he shared the horrifying Indiana Pi Bill story].

Here are just some of the questions Committee Members discussed throughout the session:

  1. Does the lack of science literacy contribute to, or even cause, polarization on issues such as climate change?
  2. How do we decide on a research agenda for this new center when we haven’t mapped the problem?
  3. The Human Genome Project can possibly serve as a roadmap on how the CCL can explore civic literacy.
  4. How do we make sure that in the process of becoming a teacher, that teacher is actually taught how to train a citizen regardless of subject area.
  5. We often hear about an achievement gap, but that assumes all students have equal access to civic learning opportunities. What we have is an "opportunity to learn gap".
  6. Do legislators have enough civic literacy? [See the aforementioned “Indiana Pi Bill” story]
  7. None of the education courses at the collegiate level is interdisciplinary. This makes education at the university level not only inefficient, but also often irrelevant. Should we think about reinventing the structure?
  8. We’re clearly not providing enough training for civic educators. How politically efficacious are our social studies and government teachers? Why not conduct a national survey to see the baseline of their knowledge?
  9. Why would the social studies or government teacher be considered the only teacher in a school responsible for civic education? Doesn’t a biology teacher have the same responsibility? Or a history, geography or language arts teacher?
  10. Shouldn’t we focus on what IS working [including iCivics and We the People]? It is just as hard scientifically, possibly harder, to find out what’s working well and why, than it is to identify what isn’t working. And it would be arguably more productive.
  11. Where are the students and the classroom educators at this conference? [With only one K-12 educator and zero students here, it’s a fair question] Are we really going to have yet another group of ivory tower educators come up with a solution not devised in collaboration with the classroom?

Obviously, the Committee Members did not have answers to these questions, nor do I think they’ll find any by the end of tomorrow. And the day was not without tension and difficulty. Preconceived theories, paradoxes, dilemmas, and definitional problems (what is “civic literacy”?) abounded, but that did not deter this group.

They are determined to design a research agenda that adds value to the field, informs education policy leaders across subject areas, and helps programs like iCivics.

And hopefully, the series of unfortunate events that led to the Indiana Pi Bill in 1897 will be less likely to happen.

Crowne Plaza Union Station Hotel | Indianapolis, IN | August 24, 2013