Ignorance is Not Bliss

Quick, attempt the following: Name the three branches of the federal government. Recognize the speech where the words "of the people, by the people, and for the people" come from. Identify the female judge on American Idol.

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute released on November 20 its latest findings on civic literacy in the United States. Not surprisingly, young people once again proved that their mastery of popular culture far surpassed their knowledge of basic facts in American history, political science, and economics. What might surprise readers however is the fact that even when one polls the middle-aged, seniors, college graduates, and elected officials, the results were not necessarily any better.

Specifically, more than 2,500 randomly selected Americans took ISI’s basic 33-question test on civic literacy and more than 1,700 people failed, with the average score being a 49 percent, or an "F." Over twice as many people knew Paula Abdul was a judge on American Idol than knew that the phrase "government of the people, by the people, for the people" came from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Shockingly, elected officials scored even lower than the general public with an average score of 44 percent. As for success, only 0.8 percent (or 21) of all surveyed earned an "A."

Simply put, America faces a crisis in civic literacy.

This fact probably does not come as a surprise to anyone who watches Jay Leno do interviews on the street or Jeff Foxworthy match adults against fifth graders; however, the problem is no laughing matter.

ISI makes its findings and its test available on its website and it is worth perusing. The test consists of basic questions culled from standardized tests for high-school graduates and the U.S. citizenship exam. Furthermore, ISI’s test is multiple-choice, and yet the average American did not get results over 50 percent, which means they did not even double the results one would statistically achieve just by blindly guessing.

Naysayers might question whether civic literacy truly poses a problem for the United States. It does. The American system depends on its citizens to make wise decisions. Such an achievement is beyond the ability of an uninformed electorate.

ISI’s findings suggest a more familiar example may be needed for Americans to grasp this political fact. Think of it this way: Can one make an intelligent prediction of American Idol’s next winner without a working understanding of Randy’s, Paula’s, and Simon’s personalities? Do you put much faith in the Super Bowl predictions of a person who thinks football is soccer?

Whether around a water cooler or outside a voting booth—debate, deliberation, discussion, and discernment all require a firm understanding of a system’s rules and a clear conception of the personalities and parties involved. Without that knowledge, we flail in the dark and can expect success only through divine intervention or dumb luck.

No contemporary American problem lacks an historical precedent, but Americans have become trapped in a tyranny of the present. If we want to find solutions (and avoid mistakes) to problems such as economic collapse, the extent of executive power, or even pirates, the place to look is our past. In fact, it is the only place we can look.

Likewise, if we have any hope of maintaining the precious hard-won freedoms we all enjoy, we must all—parents, teachers, professors, students, citizens—commit to learning, teaching, and upholding the informing principles of our system of government. Amnesia is the surest way for an individual to lose his identity; the same holds true for a people. Amnesia leaves an individual vulnerable and scared. As a people, our civic illiteracy has made us vulnerable; it is high time for us to be scared.

Civic illiteracy is a multi-causal problem that will require a multifaceted solution. The answer however does not likely lie with some of the institutions Americans typically trust to fix it. For three years, ISI has documented how colleges and universities are failing to improve their students’ civic literacy. Likewise, this year’s study revealed that television—including watching the news—also reduces a person’s civic literacy.

Conversely, civic literacy improved through consistent reading and thoughtful conversation.

In other words, the solution lies within our lifestyle choices.

Don’t shoot the messenger; the Intercollegiate Studies Institute has done the United States a favor by bringing this threat to our attention. Now, it is our collective job to take up the serious responsibility of citizenship that freedom places upon us all.

Jason R. Edwards is a research fellow with The Center for Vision & Values and the director of Educational Policy Studies at Grove City College where he serves as an associate professor of education and history.