December 3, 2009 - what do you know about your country?
OK, grown-ups, it's time for a test. Go to this link:
It's sponsored by the ISI, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. The only personal information you're asked to provide is your education level and income.
What pops up are 33 pretty interesting questions. When you're done, you find out, right on the spot, how well or poorly you did. It tells you which ones you missed, and what the right answers are.
Some of the answers you almost certainly learned in grade school. Some of them you should have learned in the process of reading the paper, watching or listening to the news, and talking to people.
The topic is "civic literacy" -- how much you know about the way the United States of America was set up, and what kinds of key events have happened since then.
You might find it interesting that most Americans who take the test fail it. The average score is 49%. College educators scored 55%. As an example, "Fewer than half of all Americans can name all three branches of government, a minimal requirement for understanding America’s constitutional system."
Given the sponsorship of the study, you might expect that one of the findings would include the value of college in the acquisition of civic knowledge. But "Earning a college degree does little to increase knowledge of America’s history, key texts, and institutions." Example: "Only 24% of college graduates know the First Amendment prohibits establishing an official religion for the United States."
How about the media? Well, it depends. "The survey revealed that in today’s technological age, all else remaining equal, a person’s test score drops in proportion to the time he or she spends using certain types of passive electronic media. Talking on the phone, watching owned or rented movies, and monitoring TV news broadcasts and documentaries diminish a respondent’s civic literacy."
It turns out that the best way to gain civic literacy is to talk about it with others, read about current events and history, and actually participate in civic activities.
On the other hand, a surprising finding was that officeholders -- elected officials -- "typically have less civic knowledge than the general public. On average, they score 44%, five percentage points lower than non-officeholders." That seems a little contradictory to me. Surely, they are spending time talking about civic events and they are certainly participating. Yet, "Thirty percent of elected officials do not know that 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness' are the inalienable rights referred to in the Declaration of Independence."
There is certainly no shortage of opinions in America today. But sometimes I suspect -- and surveys like this ongoing attempt by the ISI confirm it -- that we have a serious knowledge deficit. It will comfort no one to learn that this deficit is bipartisan.
Our national ignorance extends not only to civic information, but to economic. Example: "Only 54% can correctly identify a basic description of the free enterprise system, in which all Americans participate."
I'm seriously relieved to report that I did better than 90% on the test. The head of our IT department aced it.
But take the test in the comfort and privacy of your own home, assess your knowledge, and give a little thought to what you think a responsible citizen ought to know.
And if you discover that you need to do some reading up on things, don't be afraid to seek professional help. The public library: literacy is our business.
LaRue's Views are his own.