Early last year USA Today reported on some amazing - and shocking - research done at Xavier University in Ohio. The Xavier Center for the Study of the American Dream polled more than a thousand Americans on their understanding of civics - the real basics of American government, including institutions such as the Congress and the presidency.
Here's the shock: One in three native-born Americans couldn't answer six of the 10 questions that new immigrants must answer to qualify for U.S. citizenship. The quiz isn't exactly graduate level, but asks basic questions we should have all learned in school, including, "Why did the American colonies rebel against British rule?" and "Who was president during World War I?"
Xavier's Michael Ford, who supervised the research, sums up our national civic literacy problem by saying, "If we are civic illiterates, the chances of losing our freedom is greater than being invaded by aliens or a foreign country."
Boise State University's Andrus Center is working hard to push back against "civic illiteracy" for one fundamental reason: None of us can be effective, engaged citizens of our republic unless we possess the civic skills needed to make informed, well-reasoned decisions.
The American system rests on a foundation of citizen engagement and knowledge. Without that foundation, the whole structure is weakened and ultimately threatened.
As part of the Andrus Center's ongoing commitment to engaged citizenry, the center presents a major conference on "The State of the Presidency" on Thursday at Boise State University. The topics to be considered by an outstanding lineup of presidential scholars could not be timelier or more important and the conference is designed to allow all of us as engaged citizens to learn, debate, question and become better prepared for our individual responsibilities in maintaining and improving our form of government.
The scope of presidential power has been a subject of enduring discussion and debate since the early republic and has again assumed center stage in American politics.
No matter how you feel about President Obama's use of drones, various proposals for gun regulation, recess appointments, the attack on American diplomats in Benghazi, or a host of other issues, we all need to understand the history, scope and constitutional issues that help shape the power of all presidents.
The controversies generated by President Obama and, it should be said, his predecessors of both parties will be among the many topics examined during the daylong conference. The Andrus Center will host a distinguished group of scholars, recipients of some of the most prestigious academic awards representing a political cross-section of informed experts who regularly appear on both Fox News and MSNBC. Their scholarship informs students, of course, but also our civic life. Interested citizens, concerned and committed to real civic education, can find information at www.andruscenter.org.
There are few opportunities in life to encounter in a single room some of the presidential scholars who have shaped the literature in the field for the past 40 years.
As I've told my students over the years, your education is not confined by the four walls of our classroom. In these difficult and challenging times, a first-hand encounter with distinguished authors on the American presidency should not be missed.
Andrew Jackson, a powerful American president, argued that the Constitution had settled for all time the powers of the executive, while one of his great contemporaries, Daniel Webster, famously argued "that the contest, for all ages, has been to rescue liberty from the grasp of executive power."
That great debate goes on today and all of us have a civic duty to engage.
Melissa Lavitt is dean of the College of Social Sciences and Public Affairs at Boise State University and a member of the Board of Governors of the Andrus Center.