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05 February 2009

Americans Don't Know Their Civics

I ran across this tonight:

Americans Fail a Basic Test on Their History and Institutions is the third major study conducted by ISI on the kind of knowledge required for informed citizenship. In 2006 and 2007, ISI published the first ever scientific surveys of civic learning among college students. Each year, approximately 14,000 freshmen and seniors at 50 schools nationwide were given a 60-question, multiple-choice exam on basic knowledge of America’s heritage. Both years, the students failed. The average freshman scored 51.7% the first year and 51.4% the next. The average senior scored 53.2%, then 54.2%. After all the time, effort, and money spent on college, students emerge no better off in understanding the fundamental features of American self-government.

Read more... (But do the quiz first.)

They've got some pretty ominous findings:

Finding 1:
Americans Fail the Test of Civic Literacy

Finding 2:
Americans Agree:
Colleges Should Teach America’s Heritage (OK, that's not ominous. It's even encouraging.)

Finding 3:
College Adds Little to Civic Knowledge

Finding 4:
Television—Including TV News—Dumbs America Down (No surprises here.)

Finding 5:
What College Graduates Don’t Know About America (They've got a whole list of stuff the grads don't know.)

Additional Finding
Elected Officials Score Lower than the General Public

YIKE!! OK, but I'm not really surprised. I called my senator's office this last week and his staffer didn't know what to do with a request for the Constitutional Authority for a bill they've passed. She didn't even understand the question. I had to ask it 3 times then explain to her, "The Founders gave Congress specific and limited powers. I want to know which Section of the Constitution they take the authority for this bill from." She said they'd get back to me. So did the other senator. So did the representative. None of them has yet, not even the representative, who is usually very good and has impressed me before with his respect for the Constitution. Even if he is a Democrat.

They've got a test where you can find out how much you know about our history & institutions. Can you pick out the 3 branches of the federal government on a multiple guess test? Less than half of the folks surveyed could do it. Take it before you read the summary, or else it's cheating. The summary has answers in it.


Karies place said...

Unfortunately, I am one of those who doesn't know a lot about the government. Thankfully I have a dh who does and fills me in when it's needed.

Ritsumei said...

That's good! They (the site) actually said that's one of the more effective ways of learning:

The civic knowledge gained from engaging in frequent conversations about public affairs, reading about current events and history, and participating in more involved civic activities is greater than the gain from a bachelor’s degree alone.

Jeannetta said...

I got an 81.4% on the quiz. Clearly I need to work on my knowledge!
Thanks for positng this, people need to better understand their own government, and specifically they need to understand the Constitution a whole lot better.
Keep up the good work :)

Ritsumei said...

I got just shy of 91%, but I browsed across the summary first and it gave me some answers, so that score is almost certainly higher than it should be. Hence the spoiler warning.

I totally agree about how folks need to be more aware, starting with myself! I just try to share the things that I find!

Martin and Jessica said...

I took the first quiz you mentioned. My score was reasonable (nicely above the average), but I was surprised at the amount of what I would call historical trivia in it. A number of the questions are not about government, but about the history surrounding the development of the government.

The quiz made for interesting dinner conversation! :)

Ritsumei said...

Jessica, your comment really made me think. I've been pondering if the historical trivia is relevant to the point that the website is trying to make. I think that, to a large degree, it is. For instance, the phrase "separation of church and state" that you hear so much is not a Constitutional idea, although it is frequently portrayed as such. Knowing that it comes from Jefferson's personal correspondence and NOT from the Constitution (which I somehow failed to put together, even after reading the Constitution) is important, in my opinion. That makes that bit of "trivia" important to knowing that the Constitution prohibits state religions and prohibits infringements on practicing our religion. It does NOT expel God from government. It's an important distinction.

On the other hand, Sputnik seems relatively irrelevant.


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