What We Don’t Know…

When I give presentations like the one I recently posted, addressing deficits in civic literacy and the extent of American ignorance of our constitutional system, I often include a statistic from a 2011 survey: only 36% of Americans can name the three branches of government. Audiences tend to gasp. Only 36%! How awful!

Well, the Annenberg Public Policy Center has just released the results of a similar survey taken just this year, and not only has there been no improvement, the results are actually worse.

The annual Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey finds that:

  • More than half of Americans (53 percent) incorrectly think it is accurate to say that immigrants who are here illegally do not have any rights under the U.S. Constitution;
  • More than a third of those surveyed (37 percent) can’t name any of the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment;
  • Only a quarter of Americans (26 percent) can name all three branches of government.

When asked about rights protected by the First Amendment, most of those who could name at least one right connected the Amendment to Freedom of Speech. But naming a right obviously isn’t the same thing as understanding it: 39% of those respondents said they support allowing Congress to stop the news media from reporting on “any issue of national security” without government approval.

I’m sure Donald Trump believes that any reporting critical of him is an “issue of national security.” Definitions can be so pesky….

I know I sound like a broken record, but civic ignorance matters. It’s one thing to have different policy preferences and to engage in debates about the relative merits of those preferences; such debates can be illuminating and productive. Most of us have been in situations where we are “schooled” by a person arguing for a different approach to an issue; sometimes, we’re introduced to information we didn’t have, other times to arguments we haven’t considered. Even if we don’t change our own preferences, we appreciate where others are coming from.

However, when one party to a political argument is clearly ignorant of the most basic premises of American government, we don’t consider that person’s point of view legitimate. Those who know better will discount the person, and any organization he or she might represent, in the future.

The problem is, too few of us know better; as a result, we can often be persuaded by arguments that a civically-literate person would recognize as specious.

When Americans don’t know squat about their government, democracy doesn’t work. Voters don’t have the tools to evaluate candidates’ platforms or assess their fitness for office. They can’t hold public officials accountable, because they don’t know what those officials are supposed to be accountable to. 

Activists, candidates and office holders who don’t know what they’re talking about ought to be marginalized for that reason– but as we have seen, when Americans dismiss knowledge and expertise as “elitist,” even profound and obvious ignorance is no longer an electoral handicap. Today, too many Americans don’t vote for the person they consider most knowledgable and thoughtful; they vote for the demagogue who is most closely channeling their bigotries.

We are about to discover that the old adage was wrong: what you don’t know can hurt you.


  1. “when Americans dismiss knowledge and expertise as “elitist”…”

    I suspect many Americans engage in this elitist name calling as a way of covering up their own ignorance and lack of expertise. When a recognized authority figure also engages in this name calling it feeds the psychics of his followers and emboldens them to continue to resist any and all efforts to educate them. The chasm between the educated and the uneducated grows wider as resentments build on both sides.

  2. Part of the reason so many people know so little about government is that although everyone took a Civics or Social Studies class in high school, it was an academic class, usually for Seniors (who wanted to be somewhere else, socializing), and seemed to have little relevance to their personal lives. Responsibility is not easy to teach, so much of what they learned in a academic class was not internalized.

  3. “…a statistic from a 2011 survey: only 36% of Americans can name the three branches of government. ”

    Reading the blog today; and struck by the copied and pasted statement above, I was reminded of an old saying, “All roads lead to Rome.” It cannot be denied that most, if not all, problems today lead directly to the lack of knowledge of civics. Beginning with our own rights AND responsibilities regarding civic duty as well as the this government’s rights and responsibilities TO the American public…not only the wealthy 1% and big business. Citizens United is an oxymoron of unrivaled denial of citizen’s rights and denying them the ability to meet their responsibilities.

    Couple Citizens United as supported by SCOTUS with the uselessness since it’s inception of the Electoral College and we, the people, are left in the dark with no way out of our current Fascist presidential route to further economic decline and looming nuclear war. We were handed our second war-mongering president in this 21st Century; the majority of voters were ignored in 2000 and 2016. As reported by a former government official soon after Trump’s inauguration; he has the computer code numbers to that button with no documentation to stop him from pressing it. We have no civil rights in that decision; nor does our Congress or the Judicial system have any responsibility to stop him. Will it be North Korea or Iran? Trump’s decision alone!

    We are learning more and more each day what we don’t kow, IF we are paying attention, that what we don’t know does hurt us. But to use another old saying, “We ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”

  4. The scariest thing about civic illiteracy is the number of elected public officials who proudly display it.

  5. Thank you Ed Darrell for the great reminder of Will Rogers and how I wish that he was around today. Sure, we have a lot of great folks that tell us just how whacko things are today in so many way but Rogers was and still is the master!!!

  6. This civic ignorance has been coming for a long time. Ever since the sainted Reagan administration tried to eliminate the Department of Education, neoliberal Republicans have been trying to dumb-down and drown out public education and replace it with their ill-begotten profit centers called private schools.

    It is difficult for me to see this situation as anything but a conspiracy to keep people ignorant, so they will swallow the lies of the right-wing policy makers who are dedicated solely to making the rich richer and the poor….who cares about the poor.

    This insidious attack on education, knowledge and critical thinking is already showing how much it hurts our country. The 62 million fools who voted for Donald Trump most likely couldn’t tell you the difference between a democracy and a democratic republic. Their take on having a “strong leader” is accepting a dictatorship; since they know little history, they have no frame of reference for seeing how those things turn out.

  7. Greetings Pat de. I am a long time retired Social Studies teacher. I once mentioned on this site that my senior class students did not do very well in my government class and two participants that day reacted by saying that they didn’t see how it applied to them. A good point. I hope the system has come up with a better system other than reading it from a book. And then there is the idea that it might have been the teacher.

  8. Thank you, Sheila Kennedy, for this statement. You are not the first to bemoan the ignorance of the general populace concerning their own government, but yours s one of the most well expressed. Of course, one of the problems is that those who most need to read it and pay heed to it are quite unlikely to do so. Those of us who do know and understand “Civics” bear great responsibility in joining you in making genuine efforts to enlighten our fellows. We all need to cease our continual complaining about the problem, get off our duffs, and begin to to engage actively in trying to help change things. When I was in high school, back in my home state of Indiana, one of the courses we took was civics, and it was not just a lecture course. We spent one week sitting in on a trial, for example. We participated in a mock election in which everyone ran for some public office and were required to go around to other classes, giving political speeches to garner votes. Various local officials visited the class to talk about what their office did and what their responsibilities were. We practiced filling out ballots–that reveals my age–and so much more. Many pooh-poohed the class, but I doubt anyone left without at least some basic knowledge of the workings of government and their personal responsibilities in contributing to the success of it all.

  9. Im in discussion with fellow workers on the Davis-Bacon repeal act(HR743),submitted by Steve King (R-IA) to cut the guarenteed prevailing wage for federal,highway workers,on jobs. this is a life line of a living wage jobs,and the only known guarentee. Im in this indutry. My employer bids on work,and it included or local prevailing wage scale. ive been following this for quite awhile. Theres no political movement here in North Dakota,its like its a secret. Few if any locals here read any news,about this repeal act,,they get headline stuff,and bar room talk. so if your needing to know something that directly impacts your life,its already gone by the time you get the news. so much for citiizenship. My efforts help,but, its the person im talking to,who, doesnt have a clue on how to react on such a piece of legislation,or find it. I give them our congress,and senate numbers,who they are,and discusss the merits of them defending something that would better thier lives,and our countries survival as working class. many young workers,who never been involved in much more that games,schooling here that really lacks,in liberal values,and a attitude of who cares. typically id see this as normal in a devout red state,where trump is king. hense we have this now generation handing me “arent we suppose to accept this?”seriously,i hear this often,in those words.They have no inititive to involve themselves in any matter. blow the world up, hey,we have jobs! sad state of affairs when i see this. Our schools fail here.sure we send out a high percentage of people ready for college,but,we have sent them totally blind to seaking out,and demanding change,that,would carry all of us up. we have a popular notion here that trump is right,hes the best thing ever,a total buisness,an,and great rich person,a god. I tell them sure,and watch him and his cronies keep your working class ass in poverty for the next 10 years,thanks…Its education here,lack of any knowlege they can change things,and find a avenue for change,and what is really happening,if, they take those ear buds out,and use that i phone to read,partake,and see whats in thier future,and if this gets any deeper on the legislative table. wake up! i’m teaching basic principles,to grown men and women,and its coming back to me,they have never had any education in the process of being a citizen,beyond what they are TOLD. Im waking afew up,but its really sad to see,these generations we deal with today totally devoid of any sense of being a citizen,and acting on thier own values,when wall street has a mob who seeks to distroy thier future for its own gains. we live next to economic slavery now,and we have to depend on the future generations to act on keeping the working class in light

  10. Our oldest grandson turned 18 today. He has to register for Selective Service just in case a war comes along. Hmm. Check out cover of latest issue of NEWSWEEK about our insane president.
    I think I’ll start lobbing those questions at the kid.

  11. “Senators have just a few days to vote on the Cassidy-Graham bill, the third and final Republican effort this year to dismantle the 2010 Affordable Care Act. They have to vote by Sept. 30, because after that Senate rules will require 60 votes to pass the bill, instead of the 51 required now — and the Republicans running Congress will never get 60.”

    The above is copied and pasted from an AOL Financial news report this morning; a bit of civic news we all need to keep in mind this coming week as September 30th nears. The AOL Financial report headlined the article as a “fatal flaw in the current Senate bill”.

  12. A high school classmate at a reunion last fall told me she was voting for Trump based on one word – abortion – and was not moved by my pleas to consider a myriad of other issues. She won, and now we have a demented man at the helm who is playing the race card (among others) which will be more divisive to this country than Richard Spencer and the KKK combined. Thanks, classmate! Ignorance is not bliss – never was. Ignorance is ignorance. civic education counts, big time, if voters are to make informed choices, and we clearly made an uninformed choice last fall, one that we need to correct as soon as possible.

  13. Inadequate knowledge in all topics has snuck up on us because it’s also good news, there’s so much more to know. Progress perhaps in all fields but especially in technological fields has happened explosively.

    That’s good but only for those with the opportunity, talent, time and interest to dive into the knowledge pool. That wealth is also unevenly distributed.

    What of the others who are unable to keep up?

    For the authoritarians among us the answer is clear. Excuse your personal inadequacies by scapegoating more knowledgable ones as “elitist” as compared to, for instance, “elite” athletes. Those few letters at the end of that word make all of the difference. In addition protect your ranks by organizing in ways that protect the vulnerability of being behind by groupthink, like murmurations of fish and birds trying to appear as collectively big rather than individually defenseless.

    None of us know what we don’t know but only the thinkers understand and accept that.

  14. I remember when growing up having friends whose parents nearly managed to have the best teacher in our school let go. This teacher did much to expand my mind and my concept of what was possible for myself at a critical time in my life. He was an inspiration for many rural kids who may not have been able to see world outside otherwise.

    The class this teacher taught was compulsory, and the children of this family just could not or would not understand what they were being taught. They were A students because they had perfected academic regurgitation, but they were unable to think. The parents brought together like-minded people and begged the school board to rid the community of this man who would embarrass the children of good, hard working, law-abiding people by giving them Cs and Ds for not being “heads in the clouds” types.

    Fortunately they failed, but I as a child got a glimpse of what the rise of Naziism must have been like. These were sweet, good people by most standards, who were willing to fight to preserve their ignorance and the ignorance of their children. Today I still know them. I was not surprised to hear that they are all great supporters of The Orange One and his policies.

  15. The business community (including Bill Gates and the Common Core group) keep pushing the humanities and civics out of the curricula to force every student to take more math, science, and technology. Our State Chamber of Commerce has lobbied successfully for students to become trained for work but not educated citizens who know how to impact their government, employers, and communities.

    Employers used to value employees who had families and were community activists and volunteers. Now Koch brothers and others have organized major businesses across the nation into ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) and business lobbying organizations to oppose health insurance plans providing maternity care, family plans, responsible family planning as well as public education, environmental safety, workplace safety, and collective bargaining to give employees some ability to bargain workplace safety and benefits. Workers are expected to work overtime without overtime pay. Salaried employees are expected to become workaholics and check their texts round the clock and on vacation. Time for family, church and community are viewed with suspicion and jealousy rather than valued.

    Our nation is more than an economy and employment, and our schools are more than test scores on math and science tests. We are losing instruction not only in civics but other humanities, fine arts, and physical fitness. School libraries are often unstaffed. Guidance counselors have 2-3 times the recommended workload. Even vocational education funding which the business community should be supporting has been cut to drastically low levels to instead force every possible student into a college prep track.

    As noted here earlier, we have an over-supply of PhDs in math and too few skilled laborers who can repair computers and plumbing. Thanks to our corporate lobbying organizations, we also have too few citizens who understand their own government enough to answer the questions posed in the Annenberg survey.

  16. If you are confronted with right wing Facebook posts with folks waving those flags and affirming their patriotism, it’s evil fun to tell them a few of these facts and challenge them with the 100 questions that new citizens have to know. Instead of getting a bunch of nasty “libtard” accusations, things suddenly go silent. This is the URL: https://www.uscis.gov/citizenship/teachers/educational-products/100-civics-questions-and-answers-mp3-audio-english-version

  17. My guess is that more Americans know some of the First Amendment protections than know they are contained in the First Amendment. In other words, less than half knew that Freedom of Speech was a First Amendment right, but I would guess that more knew that it was a “right of Americans.” The same goes for Freedom of religion and the press.

    This in no way negates the point of this blog…the lack of knowledge about how our nation is run is appalling. Since No Child Left Behind, we’ve spent so much energy focused on testing, testing, testing Reading and Math, that we’ve neglected civics, science, current events, and other important areas.

  18. Stuart: I was just going to mention that! When my husband got the materials needed to study for the citizenship exam, I read through them. I learned a thing or two from it and have used that info to inform some others. A couple of weeks ago, my bff swore we had an official language – English. I tried to correct her but she was adamant about it and I was adamant about correcting her. She ended the conversation abruptly because she lost and we’re still friends, but I laugh when she tries desperately to repeat the right wing talking points that just isn’t true.

    I think every home should be sent these exam questions via snail mail and hopefully, more people will pay attention. “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink.” I sent that link to her (my bff) a couple of years ago and to her Mother who is 78 yrs old. Her mother replied that she would have failed that exam and showed deep respect for my spouse to have to learn these things before he became a citizen. She said she didn’t realize it was so difficult. I told her it was more difficult to get police reports from every address he had lived at since he was 16 years old. She had no idea that was required of immigrants to become citizens. I didn’t bother to tell her the whole bureaucratic process of Interpol, finger prints, health physicals and immunizations required, etc. They gave my husband 5 or 6 immunizations at once. Yikes. His arm was sore for a week and the doctor checked to make sure he had his man parts. If only these Americans knew what it took because surely, most of them would not pass, would not be able to give up this information and would object to getting shots and their underwear parts checked.

Comments are closed.