Who will govern a nation of ignoramuses?

November 28, 2008|By KATHLEEN PARKER

WASHINGTON - So much for the wisdom of The People.

A new report from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute on the nation's civic literacy finds that most Americans are too ignorant to vote.

Out of 2,500 American quiz-takers, including college students, elected officials and other randomly selected citizens, nearly 1,800 flunked a 33-question test on basic civics. In fact, elected officials scored slightly lower than the general public with an average score of 44 percent compared to 49 percent.

Only 0.8 percent of all test-takers scored an "A."

The multiple-choice ISI quiz wouldn't deepen the creases in most brains, but the questions do require a basic knowledge of how the U.S. government works. Think fast: In what document do the words "government of the people, by the people, for the people" appear? More than twice as many people (56 percent) knew that Paula Abdul was a judge on American Idol than knew that those words come from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address (21 percent).

In good news, more than 80 percent of college graduates gave correct answers about Susan B. Anthony, the identity of the commander in chief of the U.S. military, and the content of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.

But don't pop the cork yet. Only 17 percent of college grads understood the difference between free markets and centralized planning.

Then again, we can't blame the children for what they haven't been taught. Civics courses, once a staple of junior and high school education, are no longer considered important in our quantitative, leave-no-child-behind world. And college adds little civic knowledge, the study found.

Most bracing: Only 27 percent of elected officeholders in the survey could identify a right or freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment. Forty-three percent didn't know what the Electoral College does. And 46 percent didn't know that the Constitution gives Congress power to declare war.

What's behind the dumbing down of America?

The study found that passive activities, such as watching television (including TV news) and talking on the phone, diminish civic literacy. Actively pursuing information through print media and participating in high-level conversations makes one smarter.

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute insists that higher-education reforms aimed at civic literacy are urgently needed. But historian Rick Shenkman thinks reform needs to start in high school. His strategy: Require students to read newspapers, and give college freshman weekly quizzes on current events.

Did he say newspapers?! Mr. Shenkman even suggests government subsidies for newspaper subscriptions, as well as federal tuition subsidies for students who perform well on civics tests. Not only would citizens be smarter, but newspapers might be saved.

In his book Just How Stupid Are We?, Mr. Shenkman, founder of George Mason University's History News Network, is tough on everyday Americans. Why, he asks, do we value polls when clearly The People don't know enough to make a reasoned judgment?

The founding fathers, Mr. Shenkman points out, weren't so enamored of The People, whom they distrusted. Hence a republic, not a democracy. They understood that an ignorant electorate was susceptible to emotional manipulation and feared the tyranny of the masses.

Both Mr. Shenkman and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute pose a bedeviling question: Who will govern a free nation if no one understands the mechanics and instruments of that freedom?

Answer: maybe, one day, a demagogue.

Kathleen Parker's syndicated column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. Her e-mail is kparker@kparker.com.

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