However you regard the outcome of the November 4 election, it was heartening to watch 125 million Americans cast their ballots at precincts from coast to coast. Unfortunately, they and the many millions more who skipped the whole thing collectively know frightfully little about the government we just reaffirmed, the principles that undergird it, and the basic documents in which those ideas are enshrined. Thus, Americans slouch into the 21st century — a free and confident people blissfully unaware of how we got here or how we shall continue our 232-year-old tradition of limited self-government.
Consider these staggering data:
Fully 71 percent of Americans flunked a 33-question civic-literacy survey conducted by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Among 2,508 respondents ISI randomly selected, 1,791 failed this test of U.S. historical, political, and economic basics. The average score was just 49 out of 100 — a solid F. While just 2.6 percent scored Bs on this quiz, only 0.8 percent earned As.
Just 49 percent of rank-and-file Americans can identify the legislature, executive, and judiciary as our three branches of government.
Forty percent of college graduates have no idea that corporate profits equal revenues minus expenses. (Thus, congressional demagoguery about “windfall profits” falls on sympathetic ears.) Only 24 percent of college grads realize that the First Amendment forbids the establishment of an official U.S. religion.
Amazingly enough, this sample’s 164 self-identified elected officials know even less than laymen. They averaged only 44 — the blind leading the bland. Among office holders, 30 percent did not know that the Declaration of Independence heralds “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
However, We the People closely follow popular culture here in the United States of American Idol. Only 21 percent of respondents correctly identified Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address as the source of the words “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” But 56 percent properly named Paula Abdul as a judge on the karaoke sensation American Idol.
God help us.
“Our study raises significant questions about whether citizens who voted in this year’s landmark presidential election really understand how our system of representative democracy works,” said Dr. Richard Brake, ISI’s Director of University Stewardship.
Lt. Gen. Josiah Bunting III, the chairman of ISI’s National Civic Literacy Board, describes his initial reaction to these results as “somewhat short of despair, certainly one of depression.” He adds: “These questions are designed to elicit answers to fundamental questions. A citizen should know that the president cannot declare war. A citizen should know the circumstances of the founding of the country.”
Bunting calls our 24-hour news culture part of the problem:
“If you watch cable news channels, you see three or four streams of information,” he says. “This has nothing to do with using your mind as a muscle.”
Instead, Bunting and ISI hope to make “state legislators, governors, senators, and representatives active agents of change.” With taxpayers underwriting some $114 billion annually for government-subsidized university education, Bunting believes “every student should be steeped in Western culture, U.S. political, economic, military, and diplomatic history, and free-market economics.”
Released Thursday morning at Washington’s National Press Club, “Our Fading Heritage: Americans Fail a Basic Test on Their History and Institutions” is online at www.AmericanCivicLiteracy.org. Beyond a sobering analysis of this survey’s findings, readers can test their own civic literacy.
The grim results of ISI’s study reveal a crisis in this nation’s defining concept. In 1776, America’s Founding Fathers broke with Britain and established a country where men and women liberated from monarchic despotism would rule themselves — provided they were equipped with the requisite knowledge and wisdom. Will a people mesmerized by the televised humiliation of wannabe pop stars maintain this essential capacity for self-government? Thomas Jefferson’s warning remains as timely as ever: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free . . . it expects what never was and never will be.”
– Deroy Murdock is a New York-based columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and a media fellow with the Hoover Institution.
© 2008 Scripps Howard News Service.