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America The Ignorant

Newsweek is out with yet another survey establishing just how little Americans know about basic history and civics:

They’re the sort of scores that drive high-school history teachers to drink. When NEWSWEEK recently asked 1,000 U.S. citizens to take America’s official citizenship test, 29 percent couldn’t name the vice president. Seventy-three percent couldn’t correctly say why we fought the Cold War. Forty-four percent were unable to define the Bill of Rights. And 6 percent couldn’t even circle Independence Day on a calendar.

Don’t get us wrong: civic ignorance is nothing new. For as long as they’ve existed, Americans have been misunderstanding checks and balances and misidentifying their senators. And they’ve been lamenting the philistinism of their peers ever since pollsters started publishing these dispiriting surveys back in Harry Truman’s day. (He was a president, by the way.) According to a study by Michael X. Delli Carpini, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication, the yearly shifts in civic knowledge since World War II have averaged out to “slightly under 1 percent.”

But the world has changed. And unfortunately, it’s becoming more and more inhospitable to incurious know-nothings—like us.

Just how bad is http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/wp-admin/post-new.phpit? Pretty bad:

  • 33% of respondents couldn’t identify the date on which the Declaration of Independence was adopted
  • 65% of respondents couldn’t identify what happened at the Constitutional Convention
  • 88% of respondents couldn’t identify one of the authors of The Federalist Papers
  • 80% of respondents couldn’t identify who was President during World War One
  • 73% of respondents couldn’t identify what the Cold War was about
  • 59% of respondents couldn’t identify what role Susan B. Anthony played in American history
  • 61% of respondents couldn’t identify how long a Senator’s term of office is
  • 29% of respondents couldn’t identify the name of the current Vice-President

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen results like this, of course. Back in June, I noted a study that found that Americans knowledge about the Revolutionary War and America’s Founding Era was woefully incomplete, and that American’s are largely mistaken in what they do know about their country. There was even a survey last year that established that two-thirds of Americans couldn’t identify a single member of the Supreme Court.

All of this stands in start contrast with Europeans, who seem to do far better than Americans on these surveys:

In March 2009, the European Journal of Communication asked citizens of Britain, Denmark, Finland, and the U.S. to answer questions on international affairs. The Europeans clobbered us. Sixty-eight percent of Danes, 75 percent of Brits, and 76 percent of Finns could, for example, identify the Taliban, but only 58 percent of Americans managed to do the same—even though we’ve led the charge in Afghanistan. It was only the latest in a series of polls that have shown us lagging behind our First World peers.

One wonders, of course, how well Brits, Danes, or Finns would do on general knowledge survey about their own government and political system, but it probably isn’t too far a stretch to say that they’d do comparatively better than Americans in that area as well. More importantly, though, ignorance can have a profound effect on the political system:

The current conflict over government spending illustrates the new dangers of ignorance. Every economist knows how to deal with the debt: cost-saving reforms to big-ticket entitlement programs; cuts to our bloated defense budget; and (if growth remains slow) tax reforms designed to refill our depleted revenue coffers. But poll after poll shows that voters have no clue what the budget actually looks like. A 2010 World Public Opinion survey found that Americans want to tackle deficits by cutting foreign aid from what they believe is the current level (27 percent of the budget) to a more prudent 13 percent. The real number is under 1 percent. A Jan. 25 CNN poll, meanwhile, discovered that even though 71 percent of voters want smaller government, vast majorities oppose cuts to Medicare (81 percent), Social Security (78 percent), and Medicaid (70 percent). Instead, they prefer to slash waste—a category that, in their fantasy world, seems to include 50 percent of spending, according to a 2009 Gallup poll.

This one in particular cannot be blamed on the American people alone, of course. Politicians, pundits, and interest groups regularly engage in disinformation and demagoguery on these issues to the point where it’s nearly impossible for the casual observer of politics to know what the truth is. Moreover, people’s opinions on these issues are motivated as much by self-interest as they are by what might be right policy choice. The reason there’s resistance to reform to Social Security and Medicare is because people think they’ll use it one day and they don’t want to give that up. Ignorance plays a role, but it isn’t the only factor.

Nonetheless, yes, it is distressing that such a large portion of the public doesn’t know basic facts about the country they live in. As I noted back in June, though, this might not be as bad as some people make it out to be:

While it’s yet another depressing reminder of the extent to which schools have failed to teach basic American history,  or more importantly to instill in people a desire to learn about history, it’s not at all news. We’ve seen surveys like this before and I’m sure that we’ll see them again. I’m not at all certain that this means much of anything for the political system, though, because the people who are unable to identify the basic facts of American history are also unlikely to be the ones lining up at the polling place at six in the morning to cast a ballot.

That’s one of the reasons that I’m personally not bothered by issues like low voter turnout; there seems to me to be little positive value in encouraging the willfully ignorant to participate in a system they know nothing about.

Indeed.

 

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Odds are that anyone reading this can answer all those questions.

    How much or our military spending might be considered as foreign aid? Even ignoring the direct payments and disaster relief efforts, some of it clearly is meant to protect those outside the US and many have complained about the free rider problem for quite some time. The calls lately seem to be to cut military spending by bringing lots of trrops home, and not just from active battlefield theaters.

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  2. john personna says:

    I couldn’t remember what Susan B. Anthony did. I’d have gotten it on multiple choice though ;-)

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  3. jwest says:

    Time for a bit of deductive reasoning.

    Newsweek and the Daily Beast ran this test, with people at the Beast rotating questions, so we know it was a live, person to person survey/quiz. 1000 people were tested, so this wasn’t a cheap endeavor.

    Is there anyone here who doubts that at the end of the quiz, a few demographic questions were asked? They would include age bracket, income level, education and the “do you consider yourself to be liberal, conservative or independent?”

    I can guarantee that results of the test when viewed under the political leaning crosstab didn’t bode well for the left. The lack of reporting is more damning than the actual statistics.

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  4. Neil Hudelson says:

    65% of respondents couldn’t identify what happened at the Constitutional Convention

    While I’m sure the question itself wasn’t this vague, this summary is quite confusing. Was the question about a specific event, or just the general gist of it.

    For instance, if the question was “What was formulated and passed at the Constitutional Convention” and 65% couldn’t guess simply from the name alone, yes that is damning.

    However if the question was “What did the Connecticut Compromise entail?” (Since that also “happened” at the CC) then I’m not shocked or disappointed at those who failed this question.

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  5. Neil Hudelson says:

    Is there anyone here who doubts that at the end of the quiz, a few demographic questions were asked? They would include age bracket, income level, education and the “do you consider yourself to be liberal, conservative or independent?”

    I can guarantee that results of the test when viewed under the political leaning crosstab didn’t bode well for the right. The lack of reporting is more damning than the actual statistics.
    ————————————-

    That’s fun! Let’s make up more sh*t!

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  6. An Interested Party says:

    I had no idea that jwest possessed psychic powers and could read multiple minds…his/her talents are so wasted in this venue…

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  7. jwest says:

    Neil,

    Assume for a moment you are the head of the “features” committee at Newsweek. Some junior writer pitches the idea of doing a survey/test to gage the civics knowledge of the average American. The cost will be a bit substantial, due to the need to interview 1000 randomly sampled individuals.

    You give the go-ahead for the concept. Now you determine the contents.

    You take the standard U.S. citizenship test and randomly select 10 questions. Now, you think about what your readers will want to know – adding color and background to this expensive article. As an editor, what context do you think people would like you to bring with this information?

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  8. Neil Hudelson says:

    Usually socioeconomic and education level, unless you are idiotic, hyperpartisan, and insane–or jwest (but I repeat myself). Then of course its a conspiracy to cover up shortcomings of an all encompassing “left.”

    Which side is more likely to fail an intelligence test (which, for all intents and purposes this is–just intelligence about one specific subject):

    The political side whose elements deny evolution, deny global warming, believe that the earth is 6,000 years old, and believe that the President is a muslim/marxist/kenyan usurper?

    By no means do I think all conservatives are stupid. James Joyner, et al proves that that is not so. But when push comes to shove, one side clearly has a rather rabid minority whose intelligence is found to be lacking.

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  9. jwest says:

    Neil,

    As with civics, liberals tend to have problems with math and statistics too.

    On a district by district level, more educated people vote republican. This is simply self evident.
    http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/2750401/presidential_politics_more_educated.html?cat=7

    Although there is a small contingent of overly degreed liberals clinging to positions on the public dole, the vast majority of democrat vote is culled from the dregs of society. Scores of illiterate and barely sentient sheep, along with prisoners, illegal aliens, the brain dead and the actual dead fill the ballot boxes on the left.

    As to the Newsweek survey, of course you’re right. They are not publishing the crosstabs so as not to embarrass republicans. That’s just how good liberals are.

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  10. Stan says:

    jwest, I wonder if you could be a little more specific as to what groups make up the dregs of society.

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  11. mantis says:

    Although there is a small contingent of overly degreed liberals clinging to positions on the public dole, the vast majority of democrat vote is culled from the dregs of society. Scores of illiterate and barely sentient sheep, along with prisoners, illegal aliens, the brain dead and the actual dead fill the ballot boxes on the left.

    Well, if you’re going to just make shit up, why not go whole hog? We’re all pedophiles and terrorists too, donchaknow!

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  12. jwest says:

    Mantis,

    Admitting it is the first step to recovery.

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  13. Neil Hudelson says:

    …of course you’re right. They are not publishing the crosstabs so as not to embarrass republicans.

    Either you don’t understand mockery, or you are making sh*t up not just about Newsweek, society, and our culture as a whole, but you are putting words into the mouths of individuals. It’s quite an impressive feat just how much dreck you can peddle.

    Oh by the way, I can find particular studies “showing” that my side is more intelligent too. http://www.cnn.com/2010/HEALTH/02/26/liberals.atheists.sex.intelligence/index.html Of course I don’t actually put stock in this because I realize there are very intelligent people on all sides of the political map.

    But hey, quotes like this

    the vast majority of democrat vote is culled from the dregs of society. Scores of illiterate and barely sentient sheep, along with prisoners, illegal aliens, the brain dead and the actual dead fill the ballot boxes on the left.

    will definitely make you seem reasoned, analytical, and intelligent, and not at ALL crazy.

    And my statement about the minority right regarding basic science still stands…

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  14. jwest says:

    Stan,

    I know you’re hoping for some affirmation that I couple being black to the term “dregs of society”, so that you could use the universal retort for a liberal who has just had their ass handed to them (screaming “racist!”), but Homey isn’t playing that today.

    My distain for those on the left is totally non-biased.

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  15. jwest says:

    Neil,

    Your belief in global warming is based on claims by a few “scientists” who hid, manipulated and destroyed the base data that should have been available to back up their claim. Instead of immediately discounting their results and demanding scientific, peer-reviewed proof, you willingly follow along believing with the same unquestioning intensity of the ultra-religious you deride.

    Just as the peasants in the Middle Ages embraced explanations entrenched in religion and witchcraft, liberals absorb junk science with gusto. DDT was making robin eggs thinner, so ban DDT and let a million people die each year of malaria. Kids are being diagnosed with autism more than ever, so obviously it must be the vaccinations that are causing it – burn the witch!

    Being an atheist, I’m not the person to defend the religious beliefs of some conservatives, but I will note that I don’t know anyone who doesn’t believe in evolution. Even if some did, it’s a harmless misconception as opposed to liberal’s war on science. Crazed leftists who ignore all the data demonize genetically modifying grains, irradiating food, using pesticides and fertilizing, contributing to the starvation of millions. Liberals embrace the fantasy of wind and solar power while effectively blocking nuclear power that could provide a thriving economy. With their monopoly in the educational field, the left has destroyed the school systems and doomed millions of mainly inner city blacks to a life of ignorance, poverty and misery.

    If liberals stuck to their areas of competence, like performing interpretive dance, and left everything else to conservatives, things would be fine. Certainly, we would still make fun of your belief that having a ginseng enemas twice a day is good for you, but as with the right’s religion, it would be harmless. It’s only when people start believing the left can actually accomplish something that the trouble starts.

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  16. Ben Wolf says:

    Jwest,

    Neil’s acceptance of anthropogenic global warming is based on the virtually unanimous consensus of climatologists.

    Name me five climatologists who deny the planet is warming due to increasing greenhouse gas concentrations. I dare you.

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  17. Hey Norm says:

    @jwest:
    100% of the peer reviewed science supports human impact on climate change.
    0% of the peer reviewed science disputes it.
    Now I’m pretty open minded… But the numbers are just a bit lopsided.

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  18. Neil Hudelson says:

    Ben and Norm,

    Wait, are you telling me jwest just made up some crap and fit it in between some juvenile insults?

    That doesn’t sound like the jwest I know.

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  19. chsw says:

    Did the survey have figures on the political affiliations of the most knowledgeable and the most ignorant people who answered the questions?

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  20. Hey Norm says:

    @Neil,
    It’s not really JWests fault…there is a pretty large segment of the country that denies the science of climate change, the science of evolution, they think dinosaurs walked the earth with man, they think tax cuts pay for themselves, and they believe in Muslim socialists. Then there’s WMD’s in Iraq, death panels, and my favorite – Fox news is fair and balanced. Now I don’t pretend to understand the cause of this mass delusion…but I do find it amusing as he’ll.

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  21. Tlaloc says:

    The questions are a weird mix of history and current, or at least modern, events. Of the two the latter concerns me far more. Yes I think Americans should have a basic understanding of the founding of the country, but ultimately if they don’t it does very little to affect their ability to understand and interact with the world as a whole. To take the first question for instance, you either know the date or you don’t but if you don’t it doesn’t really affect your ability to understand modern events. On the other hand if you know nothing about the cold war, not even the most general concept behind it, then an awful lot of modern politics is going to be hard to fathom.

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  22. Stan says:

    “I know you’re hoping for some affirmation that I couple being black to the term “dregs of society”, so that you could use the universal retort for a liberal who has just had their ass handed to them (screaming “racist!”), but Homey isn’t playing that today.”

    Actually, JWest, I wasn’t sure you’d say black. It could have been pointy headed intellectuals, union thugs, faggots, or any number of groups who don’t belong to what you regard as real America.

    Now it’s my turn to be offensive. When it comes to climate science, you’re making yourself look both ignorant and stupid. You look ignorant because it’s obvious that you don’t know anything about atmospheric science, or any science, for that matter, and you look stupid because you’re making sweeping remarks about something you don’t understand. When you come up with some line of criticism other than ad hominem attacks on the atmospheric science community, I’ll listen.

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  23. mantis says:

    My distain for those on the left is totally non-biased.

    Well, at least he’s funny, though not intentionally.

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  24. michael reynolds says:

    On the other hand if you know nothing about the cold war, not even the most general concept behind it, then an awful lot of modern politics is going to be hard to fathom.

    Tlaloc demonstrating the concept of “droll understatement.”

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  25. [...] America The Ignorant (outsidethebeltway.com) [...]

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  26. Murray says:

    This ignorance IS a problem and Newsweek’s assertion that

    “I’m not at all certain that this means much of anything for the political system, though, because the people who are unable to identify the basic facts of American history are also unlikely to be the ones lining up at the polling place at six in the morning to cast a ballot.”

    seems very optimistic to me.

    You can make just as much of an argument for massive abstention from the well informed because they are depressed by the level of political discourse and the non-choice they usually face on the ballots. Besides, who do you think casts ballots for the likes of Bachmann? The well informed? I think not.

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  27. [...] those who correctly and incorrectly answered the questions. The results are simply amazing. More at OTB of the clulessness of individuals not able to answer simple questions about history and civics. [...]

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  28. jwest says:

    Ben,

    “Name me five climatologists who deny the planet is warming due to increasing greenhouse gas concentrations. I dare you.”

    Let’s start with this group, which has over a 1000 “deniers”.

    http://hw.libsyn.com/p/b/f/6/bf663fd2376ffeca/2010_Senate_Minority_Report.pdf?sid=d361d9fee30a02b121ca66032c0d4b4e&l_sid=27695&l_eid=&l_mid=2336201

    “The dysfunctional nature of the climate sciences is nothing short of a scandal. Science is too important for our society to be misused in the way it has been done within the Climate Science Community.” The global warming establishment “has actively suppressed research results presented by researchers that do not comply with the dogma of the IPCC.” — Swedish Climatologist Dr. Hans Jelbring of the Paleogeophysics & Geodynamics Unit at Stockholm University. [Updated December 9, 2010. Corrects Jelbring's quote.]

    “Any reasonable scientific analysis must conclude the basic theory wrong!!” – NASA Scientist Dr. Leonard Weinstein who worked 35 years at the NASA Langley Research Center and finished his career there as a Senior Research Scientist. Weinstein is presently a Senior Research Fellow at the National Institute of Aerospace.

    “In essence, the jig is up. The whole thing is a fraud. And even the fraudsters that fudged data are admitting to temperature history that they used to say didn’t happen…Perhaps what has doomed the Climategate fraudsters the most was their brazenness in fudging the data” — Dr. Christopher J. Kobus, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Oakland University, specializes in alternative energy, thermal transport phenomena, two-phase flow and fluid and thermal energy systems and has published peer-reviewed papers.

    “Global warming is the central tenet of this new belief system in much the same way that the Resurrection is the central tenet of Christianity. Al Gore has taken a role corresponding to that of St Paul in proselytizing the new faith…My skepticism about AGW arises from the fact that as a physicist who has worked in closely related areas, I know how poor the underlying science is. In effect the scientific method has been abandoned in this field.” — Atmospheric Physicist Dr. John Reid, who worked with Australia‘s CSIRO‘s (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization) Division of Oceanography and worked in surface gravity waves (ocean waves) research.

    “The whole idea of anthropogenic global warming is completely unfounded. There appears to have been money gained by Michael Mann, Al Gore and UN IPCC‟s Rajendra Pachauri as a consequence of this deception, so it’s fraud.‖ — South African astrophysicist Hilton Ratcliffe, a member of the Astronomical Society of Southern Africa (ASSA) and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and a Fellow of the British Institute of Physics.

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  29. mpw280 says:

    Maybe the teachers in primary grades need to spend more time on US History instead of comparative cultures and social studies. I know my two boys both have all the states/capitals and one has had a unit on the Constitution and most of the important presidents. Maybe if we get rid of the feel good schooling and reinstall more core education our citizens/voters won’t be such airheads. mpw

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  30. Stan says:

    None of the people jwest names in his screed about global warming are major players in atmospheric science. In fact, none of them have published anything about the field in a recognized journal, and I include Dr. Reid from Australia, who comes closest. They know more about climate change than he does, but that isn’t saying much. Their objections are mainly directed at the fervor shown by some atmospheric scientists rather than to the science itself. I agree with these objections. But that doesn’t invalidate the theory. William Shockley in this country and Philipp Lennard in Germany were racists, but they were still great physicists.

    Here’s a suggestion to jwest and others of his ilk. Look up Richard Lindzen on the internet. He’s a professor of atmospheric science at MIT, he’s a first rate scholar, and he has a number of well-grounded objections to the scientific work of Hansen and others on global change. Lindzen has published at least one article I know of in the Wall Street Journal. It’s intended for non-scientists, and I think jwest ought to read it. If he does, he’ll have a better understanding of what the issues are, and he won’t waste so much time publishing uninformed rants.

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  31. Drew says:

    Can we roll back universal suffrage, and its insuffrable get-out-the-vote campaigns along with it, yet?

    Please?

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  32. sam says:

    jwest, will you distinguish between the hypotheses of anthropogenic global warming and (plain) global warming? The two are separate – the first can be false and the second true. Will you allow for the distinction?

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  33. An Interested Party says:

    Can we roll back universal suffrage, and its insuffrable get-out-the-vote campaigns along with it, yet?

    And who, then, would be allowed to vote?

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  34. jwest says:

    Sam,

    Sorry I haven’t revisited this thread in so long.

    My position on AGW is best summed up by Harold Lewis, Emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In his letter of resignation from the American Physical Society, he expresses his outrage that the integrity of true science has been ignored in the quest for dollars associated with the global warming scam.

    http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/jamesdelingpole/100058265/us-physics-professor-global-warming-is-the-greatest-and-most-successful-pseudoscientific-fraud-i-have-seen-in-my-long-life/

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