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Civic Literacy: Just Guess.


The Intercollegiate Studies Institute yesterday released a survey of civic literacy, and found great improvement! No, of course not. The results were highly disappointing. 14,000 students at 50 schools were surveyed, and their performance was grim. Or worse than grim. Mike Ratliff, a Vice President at ISI, commented in a Newsweek interview:

Basically, we found that the freshmen arriving on campus were not very well prepared to take on their future responsibility as citizens. They earned a failing grade on our test. [The average participating freshman got 51.7 percent of the questions correct.] But after four to five years in college, we found that seniors, as a group, scored only 1.5 percent better than the entering freshmen.

What was most surprising was the finding that at 16 of the 50 schools, the freshmen did better than the seniors. We were startled by the extent of what we call “negative learning”. When courses are not offered or required, the students forget what they knew when they entered as freshmen, and that 16 included some of the best schools in the country, Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, Georgetown, Duke.


Consider several of the fiendish questions:

1. The federal government’s largest payout is for:
2. Military
3. Social Security
4. Education
5. Welfare

The correct answer, Social Security, was scored by only 19.9% of the students surveyed. Or:

The idea that in America there should be a “Wall of Separation” between Church and State appears in:

1. George Washington’s Farewell Address
2. The Mayflower Compact
3. The Constitution
4. The Declaration of Independence
5. Thomas Jefferson’s Letters

The correct answer, Thomas Jefferson’s letters, was scored by only 27.2% of the students surveyed.

Or perhaps these are too abstract. How about the battle that brought the American Revolution to an end? Multiple choices hardly seem necessary here. A relatively stunning 45.6% had the question right, which still disenhearteningly indicates that 54.4% of students found Saratoga, New Orleans, Gettysburg (!), or the Alamo (huh?) more convincing ends to the war of Independence. See several more of these diabolical questions here. And become very encouraged about the future. Perhaps students think that Yorktown’s going to occur then.


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