What We Don’t Know DOES Hurt Us…

The other day, I was grading a research paper produced by  a graduate student who shares my concerns over civic literacy. The paper included a comprehensive review of available research on the topic, much of which confirmed what we had already known about the American public’s appalling deficit in basic knowledge of our government and history.

But one finding floored me.

“In 2008, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s American Civic Literacy Program released the results of a study that tested the civic literacy of the general public, college graduates and elected officials. More than 2500 randomly selected people took ISI’s basic 33-question civic literacy exam, and more than 1700 failed, with an average score of 49 percent, and 30 percent of elected officials unable to identify the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as inalienable rights referred to in the Declaration of Independence…only 32 percent of elected officials could accurately define the free enterprise system; only 46 percent knew that Congress has the power to declare war; and only 49 percent could identify all three branches of government. Perhaps most disheartening is that civic literacy ws one of only two variables that had a negative effect on whether someone ran for public office. In other words, the more you know about American government, history and economics, the less likely you are to pursue and win elective office.” 

That explains a lot. It also raises an important question: What is the minimum content of an adequate “civics” education? What do all of us need to know in order to participate in self-governance?

In 1988, E.D. Hirsch stirred up a storm of controversy by arguing that, absent a minimal cultural literacy, students didn’t understand what they read. His basic point was that a common understanding of cultural/historical references is necessary for people to communicate. Most critics accepted that premise; where Hirsch got into trouble was by listing what he considered the necessary knowledge.

Recognizing that I’m stepping into those same choppy waters, let me just suggest some essential elements of civic literacy–beginning with an acknowledgement that neither the general public nor elected officials need to be scholars or (worse still) “intellectuals.” We are talking about very basic information necessary to conduct a rational discussion about our shared public institutions.

1) Every student who graduates from high school should know basic American history. I don’t care if they know the year the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, but they should know who the Pilgrims and Puritans were, why we fought the American Revolution, what the Enlightenment was and how it changed our definition of liberty and informed our approach to self-government and individual rights.

2) Every voter should know the basics of American government: what is meant by checks and balances and separation of powers, and the identities and duties of each of the three branches of government. Citizens should be able to recognize and define the rights protected by the Bill of Rights. (When only 51% of Americans agree that newspapers should be allowed to publish without prior government approval, we are clearly failing to provide that education.)

3) Voters don’t need to know the definition of a neutron, or how to spot a fossil, but they should know what science and the scientific method are. And they should know the difference between the scientific term “theory” and our casual use of that term.

4) Our endless debates over taxation and economic policy would benefit enormously if every student who graduated from high school could define  capitalism, socialism, fascism and mixed economy; if they knew the difference between the national debt and the deficit; and the difference between marginal and effective tax rates. (I’m always astonished by the number of people who think that being in the 50% bracket means you pay 50% of your income in taxes.)

Education reform is a hot topic right now. Basic civic knowledge needs to be at the top of that reform agenda.


  1. Bravo.

    Although, all the knowledge in the world won’t get it done if people don’t participate.

  2. Sheila, anecdotes are not proof, but my own mindset tracks with the study’s findings. I have an undergraduate degree from Notre Dame (double major: theatre and government) and a law degree from IU-Indianapolis (still can’t quite call it the McKinney school yet). People have asked me in the past if I’d ever consider running for office, and my answer is no. I have no desire to be one of a handful of people with slightly greater civic literacy in a legislature. I wouldn’t be able to get anything done, and my arguments would go over the heads of some.

    The sad thing about this is that if (a big if) my mindset exists in other reasonably well-educated people, then there’s a fair amount of talent out there that doesn’t want to be a part of the circus–even though our more rational, deliberative abilities might be sorely needed. (I know some may quibble with my description of reasonably well-educated–I have two degrees, but that does not automatically mean I’m well-educated. I hope I am, but there’s a lot I don’t know.)

    Maybe if there was some non-partisan groundswell of candidates running as an alternative, and a good number of us stood a strong chance at winning, I might consider it. But until then, the idea of being the lone beacon of reasoned debate in the room is just too hard to take.

  3. Bill–I think your mindset is characteristic of many people, especially people who (in a sane world) would make excellent public servants.

Comments are closed.