Kathleen Parker: Bailing out the ignorance of America's voters





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 with 49 percent. Only 0.8 percent of all test-takers scored an "A."

America's report card may come as little surprise to fans of Jay Leno's man-on-the-street interviews, which reveal that most people don't know diddly about doohickey. Still, it's disheartening in the wake of a populist-driven election celebrating Joes-of-all-trades to be reminded that the voting public is dumber than ever.

The multiple-choice 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 Abraham 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 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.

Most bracing: Only 27 percent of elected officeholders in the survey could identify a right or freedom guaranteed by the 1st 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 Intercollegiate Studies Institute found that passive activities, such as watching TV (including news) and talking on the phone, diminish civic literacy. Pursuing information through print media and participating in high-level conversations—even blogging—makes one smarter....


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Michael Glen Wade - 12/1/2008

Both respondents are correct. Many things are to blame for the state of public education. One certainly is the mind-numbing vacuity of many of the country's teacher education programs, with courses that are no help to teachers (just ask them) and have little to no intellectual, much less academic, content.


Lisa Kazmier - 11/28/2008

No, they don't necessarily learn about slavery in high school. It might have been mentioned in passing for me but I don't think I did. My main American history class consisted of the Revolutionary War.

A few years ago I had a conversation with Deborah Gray White and it concerned a textbook she was editing for schoolkids in Texas. The state wanted no mention of slavery in their American history book lest it "upset" anyone. She protested. I don't know how it turned out but I'm guessing the state got the book it wanted, whether Ms. White did it or not.


Tim R. Furnish - 11/28/2008

How about public education, where all most kids learn about American history is slavery, MLK and civil rights? Oh, and they also learn that Columbus and John Wayne killed all the Eden-dwelling Native Americans.

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