Sunday, November 23, 2008

Civics Literacy Quiz

I was reading Diane Meyer's Respublica this morning, and saw a link to a 34 question, multiple choice civics literacy quiz. I couldn't resist. I followed the link, took the quiz, and scored an embarrassing 81.82%.

As tepid as that is, it's better than most. The introduction to the quiz informs us that "[t]he average score for all 2,508 Americans taking the following test was 49%; college educators scored 55%." College educators averaged 55%. Now, that's disturbing enough.

But the genuinely frightening stuff was on the results page: "You can consult the following table to see how citizens and elected officials scored on each question." From the summary of results on civics test-takers who failed, and who are our elected officials:

The elected officeholders come from the ranks of Democrats (40%), Republicans (31%), Independents (21%), and those who say they belong to no party or indicate no affiliation (8%). None were asked to specify what office they held, so the proportion in which they held local, state, or federal positions is unknown.

Not all officeholders do poorly, of course. Some elected officials rank among the highest scorers. But the failure rate on the test among those who have won public office is higher (74%) than among those who have not (71%). Officeholders scored lower on all sub-themes of the test: political history, cultural institutions, foreign relations, and market economy. [Emphasis added.]

In each of the following areas, for example, officeholders do more poorly than non-officeholders:

  • Seventy-nine percent of those who have been elected to government office do not know the Bill of Rights expressly prohibits establishing an official religion for the U.S.
  • Thirty percent do not know that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are the inalienable rights referred to in the Declaration of Independence.
  • Twenty-seven percent cannot name even one right or freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment.
  • Forty-three percent do not know what the Electoral College does. One in five thinks it either “trains those aspiring for higher political office” or “was established to supervise the first televised presidential debates.”
  • Fifty-four percent do not know the Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war. Thirty-nine percent think that power belongs to the president, and 10% think it belongs to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
  • Only 32% can properly define the free enterprise system, and only 41% can identify business profit as “revenue minus expenses.”
As far as I know, teaching civics - the foundations of our free society - is not the mission of any political party, and evidently is no longer a priority in our educational system. But on an interpersonal basis, I'm making it mine. I have a hunch that the abysmal percentage of failure among elected officials to recognize these principles is a reflection of the people who elect them. In other words, 'It's the constituency, stupid.' As we all know, the old media can't be counted on to ask the relevant questions. If they were educated under those professors whose average score on this test was 55%, and if they are willing to hide information from the public in order to promote a candidate chosen in that kind of civic illiteracy (as we now know they are), it's time for all of us to find better ways to get informed. So, if my personal mission's item #1 is to take every opportunity to talk about the principles of liberty in civics, then item #2 has to be: Direct everyone I know to alternative news sources. The reason is this:
"I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." --Thomas Jefferson to William C. Jarvis, 1820. ME 15:278
I'm an ordinary person, and my influence is limited. But I think we need a brand new American Revolution based on those words, beginning in knowledge of the principles of liberty. And in my little corner of the world, I mean to start one. Oh, I know it will probably come to nothing. One person does not a revolution make. But then, I think it's possible I'm not alone. How many does a revolution make? Maybe not many. You never know ...

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