Educating for Democracy in a Digital Age

Washington, DC, March 22, 2011 –– The Aspen Institute, in partnership with iCivics, the MacArthur Foundation, and Georgetown Law will host a major conference on civics education and engagement, “Educating for Democracy in a Digital Age.” Retired US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will be the keynote speakers. The conference takes place Mar. 29 at Georgetown University Law Center’s Capitol Hill campus and will highlight recent innovations, particularly a free, interactive, online curriculum for middle school students, iCivics ( that O’Connor has worked to develop since 2007. 

Panelists and moderators will range from admired historians and authors like Jay Winik, Evan Thomas, and John Heilemann to digital pioneers and education policymakers from across the country. Secretary Duncan will recognize the winners of the first Malcolm Wilkey prize, to be awarded by Justice O’Connor, memorializing the late Judge of the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit. The prize will go to four DC area middle school students who created projects about their own civic heroes.

“We are at a critical juncture in this nation’s history and divisive political rhetoric threatens to drown out rational dialogue and debate,” said Justice O’Connor. “The situation demands engagement, a shared understanding of our history, and a collaborative commitment to our future.”

The deficits can be stunning. On the last nationwide civics assessment, more than two-thirds of students scored below proficiency. Less than one-third of eighth-graders could identify the purpose of the Declaration of Independence. The civic achievement gap between students from a disadvantaged background and their more well-off peers is equally troubling. From the fourth grade to the twelfth, poor students score significantly worse on the nation-wide civics test than their middle-class and wealthy counterparts. Unfortunately, these same populations are likely to face the most civic problems – crime, drugs, failing schools, and the cycle of poverty. In other words, these are the communities that most need civic engagement.

The answer, says O’Connor, is a thoughtful approach to the skills for 21st century citizenship. These include the ability to:

think critically about issues,
engage in thoughtful and respectful discussion and debate,
understand the political processes through which we can act,
know our nation’s history and appreciate its continuing relevance,
and use new methods of communication and community for civic purposes.

The Conference will consider how ingenious technology, smart policy, and political will can be harnessed to achieve these goals for the generation that will lead us into the future.

Registration will begin at 8am at the Hart Auditorium, McDonough Hall, Georgetown University Law Center, 600 New Jersey Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20001.

The event is open press.  Press inquiries should be directed to Kara Tershel at (202) 662-9037 or

A web cast will be available at

9:00 – 9:10 a.m.
Welcoming Remarks
William M. Treanor, Dean, Georgetown University Law Center
Walter Isaacson, President, The Aspen Institute
Robert Gallucci, President, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

9:10 – 9:30 a.m.
Opening Remarks
Sandra Day O’Connor, Associate Justice, Retired, U.S. Supreme Court

9:30 – 9:40 a.m.
Introduction of Panel 1
Lee Hamilton, former Member of the U.S. House of Representatives

9:40 – 10:50 a.m.
Panel 1: What is Civic Literacy?
Ray Suarez, Senior Correspondent, PBS NewsHour (Moderator)
Howard Gardner, Professor, Harvard Graduate School of Education
Diana Hess, Professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education
Craig Watkins, Professor of Radio-TV-Film, University of Texas at Austin
Jay Winik, Historian and Author of April 1865 and The Great Upheaval

11:05 a.m. – 12:15 p.m.
Panel 2: Innovative Civic Programs for Today’s Youth
Evan Thomas, Professor of Journalism, Princeton University and Author of The War Lovers (Moderator)
Nijmie Zakkiyyah Dzurinko, Executive Director, Philadelphia Student Union
Nichole Pinkard, Visiting Professor, College of Computing and Digital Media, DePaul University
Andrew Slack, Executive Director, The Harry Potter Alliance
Abby Taylor, Executive Director, iCivics Inc.

12:25 -1:55 p.m.
Introduction by Robert Gallucci, President, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
Lunchtime Discussion: Stories from students

2:05 – 2:20 p.m.
Report from Joe Kahne, Director, Civic Engagement Research Group at Mills College

2:20 – 3:30 p.m.
Panel 3: Policy Objectives to Improve Civic Education and Participation
John Heilemann, Journalist, New York magazine and Author of Game Change (Moderator)
Eric Liu, former Deputy Domestic Policy Director and Author of Guiding Lights: Mentor – and Find Life’s Purpose
Bonnie Reiss, former California Secretary of Education
Sonal Shah, Director, White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation (invited)

3:30 – 3:50 p.m.
Keynote Remarks
Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education

3:50 – 4:15 p.m.
Presentation of the Wilkey Award

5:00 – 5:30 p.m.
Closing Remarks
Sandra Day O’Connor, Associate Justice, Retired, U.S. Supreme Court

The MacArthur Foundation supports creative people and effective institutions committed to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world. In addition to selecting the MacArthur Fellows, the Foundation works to defend human rights, advance global conservation and security, make cities better places, and understand how technology is affecting children and society. MacArthur’s digital media and learning initiative aims to determine how digital media are changing the way young people learn, play, socialize and participate in civic life. More information is at

iCivics is a web-based education project designed to teach students civics and inspire them to be active participants in our democracy. iCivics is the vision of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who is concerned that students are not getting the information and tools they need for civic participation, and that civics teachers need better materials and support. More information is at


Jeff Harris
The Aspen Institute

Kara Tershel
Georgetown University