Ignorance Reigns Supreme

How about a few civics questions? Name the three branches of government. If you answered the executive, legislative and judicial, you are more informed than 50 percent of Americans. The Delaware-based Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) recently released the results of their national survey titled “Our Fading Heritage: Americans Fail a Basic Test on Their History and Institutions.” The survey questions were not rocket science.

Only 21 percent of survey respondents knew that the phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” comes from President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Almost 40 percent incorrectly believe the Constitution gives the president the power to declare war. Only 27 percent know the Bill of Rights expressly prohibits establishing an official religion for the United States. Remarkably, close to 25 percent of Americans believe that Congress shares its foreign policy powers with the United Nations.

Among the total of 33 questions asked, others included: “Who is the commander in chief of the U S. military?” “Name two countries that were our enemies during World War II.” “Under our Constitution, some powers belong to the federal government. What is one power of the federal government?” Of the 2,508 nationwide samples of Americans taking ISI’s civic literacy test, 71 percent failed; the average score on the test was 49 percent.

ISI findings about cultural illiteracy and academic incompetence are nothing new. A 1990 Gallup survey for the National Endowment of the Humanities, given to a representative sample of 700 college seniors, found that 25 percent did not know that Columbus landed in the Western Hemisphere before the year 1500; 42 percent could not place the Civil War in the correct half-century; and 31 percent thought Reconstruction came after World War II.

In 1993, a Department of Education survey found that among college graduates 50 percent of whites and more than 80 percent of blacks couldn’t state in writing the argument made in a newspaper column; 56 percent could not calculate the right tip; 57 percent could not figure out how much change they should get back after putting down $3.00 to pay for a 60-cent bowl of soup and a $1.95 sandwich, and over 90 percent could not use a calculator to find the cost of carpeting a room. But not to worry. A 1999 survey taken by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni of seniors at the nation’s top 55 liberal-arts colleges and universities found that 98 percent could identify rap artist Snoop Dogg and Beavis and Butt-Head, but only 34 percent knew George Washington was the general at the battle of Yorktown.

With limited thinking abilities and knowledge of our heritage, we Americans set ourselves up as easy prey for charlatans, hustlers and quacks. If we don’t know the constitutional limits placed on Congress and the White House, politicians can do just about anything they wish to control our lives, from deciding what kind of light bulbs we can use to whether the government can take over our health care system or bailout failing businesses. We just think Congress can do anything upon which they can get a majority vote.

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute has one finding that I find both a bit perplexing but encouraging. Roughly 70 percent of Americans, even those who failed the test, agreed that our history, culture and institutions are important and should be taught to our college students. They might even agree with Thomas Jefferson who warned, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

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