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Public Flunks Civics but Beats Elected Officials

By    |   Thursday, 20 November 2008 12:58 PM

Some elected officials should head back to school to learn basic facts about history, government, and economics, but they need somebody to spell out the directions very slowly or they’ll end up in the wrong college, if the results of a new survey are any indication.

For example, they can’t find their way to the definition of the Electoral College: 20 percent of the elected officials who took a 33-question test believe it "was established to supervise the first presidential debates," according to results the Intercollegiate Studies Institute released Thursday.

What’s more, the elected officials scored lower than their constituents, who also performed miserably in the institute’s third civic literacy study, part of an overall report titled “Our Fading Heritage: Americans Fail a Basic Test on Their History and Institutions.”

Another distressing sign of flagging historical knowledge: More than twice as many people knew Paula Abdul is a judge on “American Idol” than knew that the phrase, "government of the people, by the people, for the people," is from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. (Or maybe they are simply as confused as Abdul has been a couple of times on the wildly popular TV show, which it seems a bazillion people love but at least a few million despise.)

The Wilmington, Del.-based institute gave the test to 2,500 randomly selected Americans, and more than 1,700 flunked, with an average score of 49 percent. But the elected officials scored an average of only 44 percent, the institute said.

The one sign of hope: Some got A’s. But don’t get too optimistic: Only 21 aced the test, institute officials lamented.

The study is a follow-up to two previous ones in which the institute’s National Civic Literacy Board revealed a major gap in college students’ civic knowledge. This version extended beyond the hallowed halls of colleges to include average Joes and Judys on the street, including self-identified elected officials.

"There is an epidemic of economic, political, and historical ignorance in our country," Josiah Bunting III, chairman of the literacy board, said in a news release announcing the results. "It is disturbing enough that the general public failed ISI's civic literacy test, but when you consider the even more dismal scores of elected officials, you have to be concerned. How can political leaders make informed decisions if they don't understand the American experience?"

The institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan, tax-exempt organization whose mission is to help college students understand values essential to society, said colleges are part of the problem but they must become part of the solution.

“Colleges can, and should, play an important role in curing this national epidemic of ignorance,” Bunting said.

Many test participants agreed. More than 70 percent with high school diplomas, and 74 percent with graduate degrees, said colleges should “prepare citizen leaders by teaching America's history, key texts and institutions,” the institute’s report said.

But the results of this study mirrored findings of the first two. Participants who ended their formal education with a bachelor's degree scored F’s at an average of 57 percent, which the institute noted is only 13 percentage points higher than the 44 percent average of those with high school diplomas.

Civic knowledge gained from frequent conversations about public affairs, reading about current events and history, and participating in civic activities “is greater than the gain from an expensive bachelor's degree alone. Conversely, talking on the phone, watching owned or rented movies, and monitoring TV news broadcasts and documentaries diminish a respondent's civic literacy,” the institute said.

Richard Brake, the institute’s university stewardship director, said, "People may be listening to television experts talk about economic bailouts and the platforms of political candidates, but they apparently have little idea what our basic economic and political institutions are. 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."

Fewer than half of all Americans can name all three branches of government, Brake said.

Other results from the test:

  • Thirty percent of elected officials tested did not know that "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" are the inalienable rights referred to in the Declaration of Independence.

  • Almost 40 percent of all respondents falsely believe the president has the power to declare war.

  • Forty percent of those with bachelor's degrees do not know business profit equals revenue minus expenses.

  • Only 54 percent with bachelor's degrees correctly define free enterprise as a system in which individuals create, exchange and control goods and resources.

  • And just over 20 percent falsely believe that the Federal Reserve can increase or decrease government spending.

    Decrying those and other results, Brake said: "The nation's ignorance of the kind of knowledge necessary for informed and responsible citizenship, and the failure of our nation's colleges to effectively address and fix this problem, would certainly be unacceptable to our founding fathers, who believed that the university would create leaders to preserve liberty. Our report demonstrates that Americans today expect no less from our colleges than our founders did."

    The test was administered in conjunction with Kenneth Dautrich of the University of Connecticut and Braun Research Inc.

    You can take the test yourself at the institute’s American Civic Literacy Program Web site, which also includes the full report.

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    Thursday, 20 November 2008 12:58 PM
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