Squaring the Culture

"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

12/16/2008 (10:19 am)

Civic Literacy

Here’s a useful challenge for my readers: spend 10 minutes to take a 33-question quiz on civic knowledge. The test was created by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) to measure the basic literacy of Americans to understand public discourse and vote intelligently: our founding principles, the branches of government and their constitutional powers, major points in our history, and the basic principles of a free market. The questions were taken from the citizenship exam given to immigrants sitting for naturalization, and from NAEP tests of high school achievement. Most of them are straightforward knowledge questions, although a couple of the economics questions require a little nuanced thinking. I missed two, netting a 94% the first time I took the quiz; I took it again two weeks later, saw where I’d gone wrong the first time, and scored 100%.

Click on the “Our Fading Heritage” logo, below, and you’ll be taken to the beginning of the quiz. We’ll discuss it afterwards.

So, how’d you all do? If you did poorly, don’t sweat it; use the test as a guide to where you need to increase your knowledge, and go read a bit. Ignorance is curable, and no shame so long as it’s not wilful.

Of 2,500 Americans randomly selected to take the test, more than 1,700 failed, with an average score of 49%. Those who self-identified as having held public office of any kind did worse, with an average score of 44%. Only 21 of the 2,500 subjects scored an A on the test. We are not a people who understand our own nation well.

A few of the findings:

  • Almost 40 percent of all respondents falsely believe the president has the power to
    declare war;
  • 40 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree do not know business profit equals revenue minus expenses;
  • Only 54 percent with a bachelor’s degree correctly define free enterprise as a system in which individuals create, exchange and control goods and resources;
  • 20.7 percent of Americans falsely believe that the Federal Reserve can increase or decrease government spending;
  • Seniors from most colleges scored only about 4 percentage points higher than freshmen from the same college, and in some very prestigious schools (Princeton, Duke, Yale, and Cornell were named) seniors scored worse than freshmen.

Probably the most dramatic flubs are those related to the branches of government. In the video ISI provided of interviews they conducted on election day (embedded below,) people were absolutely clueless when asked to name the three branches of government. We heard “Republican, Democrat, and I can’t remember the third,” “Dick Cheney, President Bush, and Condoleeza Rice,” “The People, The Man, and the military,” but by far the most common answer was “I have no idea.” There were some pretty interesting ideas regarding who has the power to declare war, as well.

However, the more disturbing failure, in my mind, is the lack of even simple understanding about free markets and tax policy. How can a citizen understand what the government is doing if he or she does not understand why governments might reduce taxes or increase spending during a recession? How can they process news reports about the Fed when they don’t even know what the Fed is, or what it does? It’s no wonder that a demagogue like Barack Obama can gain traction; people have not the slightest clue what makes a government work. All they have to go on is his looks.

The ISI web designers are fond of quoting Thomas Jefferson on this score:

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was, and never will be.”

Thomas Jefferson, letter to Colonel Charles Yancey, January 6, 1816.The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Paul L. Ford, vol. 10, p. 4

The ISI site has video from the news conference they called to announce the publication of this year’s survey. It’s almost 70 minutes of listening to some offensively dreary fellows, but does contain some good information. There’s also a 90 minute talk by David Brooks, but frankly, I don’t have 90 minutes for Brooks.

One of the last questioners in the news conference, a college student, observed that among his fellows there are lots of folks who believe that history is simply irrelevant. I remember fighting this notion back when I was in high school. I think this occurs because history is taught stupidly; instead of a separate subject that covers a recitation of the past, history should be rolled into a single class with civics, geography, philosophy, religion, politics, art, culture, and literature. Home schoolers often achieve this when they approach topics using the Unit Study method. If history is included in the context of who we are and what’s happening today, we won’t get any of that nonsensical “Why do we care what a bunch of dead people did?”

One interesting observation from the news conference mirrors one of my favorite lines from the movies. It’s from Good Will Hunting, where Will (Matt Damon) berates a haughty college student about plagiarizing from his classes to embarrass one of Will’s friends. He ends the brief lecture with: “You dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a f’ing education you could have gotten for $1.50 in late charges at the local library.” There’s truth here; truly, what you get from a college is guidance in your reading. If you’re smart, and have the wit to ask knowledgeable people what’s important to know, you can educate yourself a lot more thoroughly than any college could. My education never really ended. A lot of my discretionary money and time goes to books. I recommend it. (On a related note, the ISI survey inversely correlated performance on the test with time spent in front of the TV; those who watched less, scored higher. No surprise there, eh?)

There’s a huge battle that needs to be fought in the education system of the nation if this is to be cured. America committed a fatal, tactical error in the battle to retain its freedom when education became a centralized governmental function instead of a consumer-driven choice by individual citizens. With education controlled from a distance by experts, a single, centralized source of educational theory emphasizing development rather than knowledge affected nearly all public education simultaneously. Knowledge and achievement dropped off rapidly, and kids became increasingly skeptical, unruly, and unmotivated (this is also affected drastically by home life, of course.) When the same source started slipping political radicalism into the curriculum, it was all over. If we ever get the chance to build a nation again, we must write in stone that education is to be local and controlled by the citizens, and never to become a central, government function.

Here’s a little factoid that the test missed: they note the source of “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” as the Gettysburg Address, and that’s correct as far as it goes. However, Lincoln actually borrowed the phrase from John Wycliffe, the Englishman who earned the wrath of the Catholic Church in the 14th century by translating the Bible into common English, making it accessible to laymen. Wycliffe wrote in the introduction to his bible, “This Bible is government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Finally, here’s a four-minute clip of interviews done on election day, showing how people responded to questions about the branches of government, who has power to declare war, and what the electoral college is. Enjoy cringing.

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December 16, 2008 @ 10:51 am #

I missed one doggone it. It should never have happened.

December 16, 2008 @ 1:32 pm #

Missed one – Lincoln Douglas debates.

December 16, 2008 @ 2:18 pm #

Thanks guys. Now I feel like a dunce! ;-)
I missed 4… the second guessing gets me everytime.

December 16, 2008 @ 2:25 pm #

I got the Lincoln-Douglas debates question right, not because I actually knew that about the debates, but because I knew that apportionment of slave/free states was the primary issue leading to the civil war. Context is everything.

I missed 27, about why free markets procure more prosperity, but I can’t imagine why. I must have misread the answers. I believe I answered “D” first time around.

I also missed 33, saying “debt is zero.” That’s clearly wrong; the deficit is zero, but the debt can be huge depending on prior years. Brain fart.

I figured my readers would do better than average on this test. Thanks, guys.

December 16, 2008 @ 2:26 pm #

I missed three.

December 16, 2008 @ 2:34 pm #

I missed:

14. About the Puritans, answered they were against war

29. About the levee, thought it was as valuable as food and medicine, I guess only if you live in a flood plain

And 33. I answered the same as you Phil. After rereading the question, well, it’s pretty obvious.

December 16, 2008 @ 2:49 pm #

I got the same answer for #33 Phil. I was figuring from the beginning if a gov’t. maintained the formula, debt would be zero, but yeah I see and understand the correct answer.

December 16, 2008 @ 4:25 pm #

I missed #18 ( Susan who? ) and #29.

My objection to the ‘correct’ answer is ONLY those people who live in the flood plain will benefit. I didn’t note any restriction on who will be paying for it.

I think people DO value levees as they do bread or medicine, that is when the don’t need it then they have no use for it. People aren’t always sick and bread isn’t a necessity for life, food is.

December 16, 2008 @ 4:29 pm #


Re 14: go back to my post entitled “Three Similar Views of Progressivism,” and review Sowell’s definition of “the constrained view.” The sinfulness of man is an inherent part of the constrained view; this is one of the core principles from Christianity that underlies the foundations of American liberty. It’s one of those ironies; you’d think calling everybody a sinner would be incredibly limiting, but it turns out to be more liberating than just about anything else you could say.

Re 29: on reflection, I think maybe it was that one I got wrong the first time. I think I said E.

December 16, 2008 @ 4:45 pm #

I remember that post indeed. Since reading it, I’ve been able to get my head around progressive think, to some extent.

December 19, 2008 @ 3:53 pm #

RE: education. I would also respectfully suggest that to exit high school every student be required to take (and pass?) a basic course, i.e., one semester, of each of: microeconomics, macroeconomics, personal finance, and principles of accounting. I would have made far better personal decisions in my life had I had such knowledge early on. In my adult life I’ve self-educated by reading Sowell, Hayek, P.J. O’Rourke (really!), Bastiat, and so on. I only wish I had made their acquaintance long ago!

PS: Russell Roberts, of George Mason Univ. & who blogs at cafehayek.com, has written some very palatable basic-economics-oriented fiction: The Price of Everything, The Invisible Heart, and The Choice. Each is surprisingly good!

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