Americans Do Poorly at Civics
Joseph Daniel Fiedler Illustration
Years before I started teaching an introductory college level course in American government, I overheard a conversation at a mall that was so disturbing I never forgot it.
A young woman shopping for a gown to attend a political function in Washington D.C. gushed about the event to a sales woman. The boasting included references to important people attending. At one point, the shopper posed this question to the attendant: “Does Louisiana have senators?”
The attendant shrugged her shoulders as if to say she didn’t know.
Sept. 17 marks the 229th anniversary of the signing of the United States Constitution, the oldest written constitution still in use today, but many Americans don’t know what it says.
I assured myself at the time that the young women I overheard were anomalies, not a reflection of American civic knowledge as a whole. Now I know otherwise. National surveys show that most Americans can’t answer basic questions about government correctly.
Those two women’s lack of knowledge about the U.S. Senate is mirrored in a basic quiz I often give on the first day of class.
Without fail, only about half of a class of 18 or so knows that all 50 states elect two senators to the U.S. Senate. About the same number believe that a U.S. president has the authority to raise or lower taxes at will. And only one or two know the difference between conservativism and liberalism.
The students I teach at Nunez Community College aren’t statistically any different than other Americans. A 2014 survey conducted by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center found that only 36 percent of adults answering a survey about government could name all three branches and 35 percent “could not name a single one.”
The Annenberg survey and others that have yielded similar results led to a national effort by the Joe Foss Institute, a nonprofit organization, to convince all 50 states to adopt legislation requiring high school students to take the test that citizenship-seeking immigrants must pass.
That test asks questions such as these: What was the purpose of the Declaration of Independence? Before he was president, Dwight Eisenhower was a general. What war was he in?
Considering that several of my students one year didn’t know the difference between the Civil War and World War II, it’s unlikely that too many Americans under age 30 would know the answer to the Eisenhower question.
The Joe Foss Institute’s goal is for all 50 states to require the test for high school graduation by Sept. 17, 2017. As of July, reaching that goal seemed unlikely. The institute’s website says only 13 have adopted it since the ’14 launch date.
Louisiana requires high school students to take the test in 2017. Students aren’t required to pass the test, however, so how much effect the requirement will have on their civic knowledge remains to be seen. As is true in most states, Louisiana students have long been required to take a civics-related course in high school.
High schools too often turn civics courses over to coaches, a clear indication that the material isn’t taken very seriously. One student taught by a coach told me that he left his students to watch movies such as Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, which is about Scottish, not U.S. history. Another was surprised to learn that GOP means Grand Old Party, a nickname adopted by the Republican Party. Her civics teacher said it meant the Greatest of Parties. So much for objective instruction.
In today’s political climate, with citizens and politicians more polarized than ever, discourse about the political process can be tricky. Many of the least knowledgeable become hostile when facts tread on their closely held opinions. Classroom discussions can become minefields, so many teachers may avoid any instruction that goes beyond memorization.
But even that explanation for ineffective teaching doesn’t account for what the Intercollegiate Studies Institute called an “alarmingly uninformed” electorate in a 2008 report.
In that report, based on random surveys of 2,508 Americans, only 24 percent of college graduates knew that the first amendment of the Bill of Rights prohibits establishing an official religion. AmericanCivicLiteracy.org, which summarizes the report, says “common citizens” scored an average of 49 percent on the civic literacy test.
The 164 respondents who indicated that they had previously held an elective government position scored an average of 44 percent, five percent less than the average score of non-office holders.
Pew Research Center surveys also show that many Americans know little about current events. The center’s website posts a current events quiz that asks 12 questions. The site says that only 52 percent of 3,147 adults could correctly identify the number of Democrats and Republicans recently elected to the U.S. Senate. Less than one-third knew there are three women on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Ninety-one percent of quiz takers recognized a picture of Martin Luther King. Only about half, however, recognized U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, whose popularity among Democrats brought national attention during the 2016 presidential primaries.
The use of pictures in the questions reflects another reason why Americans are so ill-informed: Most get their news by passively viewing TV. Fewer Americans read newspapers and news magazines today, and younger Americans don’t do much of either. The Millennial Generation tends to get its news from social media sites and word of mouth.
These trends are bad news for the future of American democracy. Civic knowledge could get worse instead of better, no matter how many laws are passed to improve it.