How Ignorant Are We?

Some years ago, Newsweek’s cover story was “How Ignorant Are We?” The article reported on results of citizenship surveys–the sorts of data I share regularly (probably too regularly) on this blog. The surveys focused on knowledge of the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and the structures of our government, basic elements of the legal environment we share.

A recent episode in Lafayette, Indiana–home of Purdue University–illustrated yet another area of civic ignorance. As reported in the local paper, a Purdue University engineering student was denied the purchase of an over-the-counter cold medicine because employees of the local CVS pharmacy “looked at his Puerto Rican driver’s license and told him he needed a valid U.S. ID, before pressing him about his immigration status.”

They didn’t know that Puerto Rico was part of the United States, and didn’t believe him when he told them he was a citizen. And it wasn’t simply one clerk. After the initial encounter (during which he showed her his passport!), the young man left; he came back later to see whether a shift supervisor or manager could help, but he received the same line about corporate policy and his “immigration status.”

The student’s mother posted about the incident, attributing the question and the disbelief to racism.

What caused this employee to ask him for his visa?” Payano Burgos wrote in a Facebook post that was still gathering steam this weekend in West Lafayette and Purdue circles. “Was it his accent? Was it his skin color? Was it the Puerto Rican flag on the license? Whatever triggered her to discriminate against my son embodies exactly what is wrong in the United States of America today.”

I’m unwilling to entirely discount racism, but I think the more likely explanation is–again–civic ignorance. There have been reported incidents in which people have assumed that New Mexico is a foreign country, or a part of Mexico. (And as we know, the President was building his wall on the border between Colorado and New Mexico…)

In a recent speech to Indiana’s Library Federation, I shared the following statistics:

In 2014 only 36% of the American public could name the three branches of government. In 2017, only 24% could. Surveys have found that fewer than half of 12th graders are able to describe the meaning of federalism and that only 35% of teenagers can correctly identify “We the People” as the first three words of the Constitution. In a survey by the Carnegie Foundation, just over a third of Americans thought that, while the Founding Fathers gave each branch of government significant power, they gave the president “the final say,” and just under half (47%) knew that a 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court carries the same legal weight as a 9-0 ruling. Almost a third mistakenly believed that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling could be appealed, and one in four believed that when the Supreme Court divides 5-4, the decision is referred to Congress for resolution. (Sixteen percent thought it needed to be sent back to the lower courts.)

We can add to that enumeration the widespread (if not statistically determined) lack of knowledge about American geography.

I guess the answer to Newsweek’s question is: very.


  1. I visited Hawaii some years ago, and more than one person asked if I needed a passport to get in.

    I remember taking Civics in 7th grade here in Indiana; Government in 10th grade; and geography scattered throughout (we’ve had the same 50 states since I was born). Why did so many of my classmates not absorb this information? – or is it that real knowledge has been wiped out by Faux “News”?

  2. While not a perfect correlation, I suspect there is a high positive correlation between racism and civic ignorance.

  3. Even people like me, a boomer, ha, don’t understand the federalist papers fully. The idea of freedom as given by God with all of our God given rights and the limits of government.
    Fiscal conservatives are now becoming unglued and our youth have no understanding of our own civic duty to maintain a free and limited government.
    Mark Levin has some very interesting books such as Liberty and Tyrrany that discuss our ignorance of our government and it’s roles.
    The role of boomers is to volunteer in schools and become involved. A study shows how boomers live longer if they donate time. A good socialist would understand it’s our fault they don’t know, ha.

  4. Thank you Sheila,

    I see this every day and it is utterly appalling. It’s hard to fathom since even before I went to school my parents were feeding me this stuff just as they did with my younger siblings. Sure, that was many years ago but still what people don’t know and their complete lack of any ability to think critically, something my Indy Star reporter Mom also taught me to do at a very young age, is alarming.

    A good case in point, at least for me, is that of a friend of mine’s father who was a Pearl Harbor survivor. had a good view of this many years ago when traveling from one Navy duty station to another. He stopped for gas somewhere and someone came up and asked him about his “Remember Pearl Harbor!” license plate frame. As he was prepared to talk about December 7th, 1941 and what happened on that day this person asked him – “Is the fishing good there?”. My friend’s Dad , of course, laughed about it as we did too but even then it was appalling. How did that person be so blank?

    This incident occurred 50 years ago so, even then, our collective road to abject stupidity regarding anything related to our country’s history and values was being paved.

  5. I’m having a hard time getting past CVS not selling over there counter medications to people who do not have a valid American driver’s license. Do they card every shopper? Do they discriminate for products other than medicine? Perhaps toe nail clippers or greeting cards? Is this business practice exclusive to them, or are other businesses doing this?
    Silly me. I thought we had gotten past this kind of discrimination decades ago.

  6. And I’m afraid the “very” applies to “ignorance” in general — not just civic ignorance.

    From my research, the “dumbing-down” of the American populace began in the 50s and was part of the mission of the CIA. An informed populace was perceived as a threat, and the television was used to move U.S. citizens from aware citizens to consumer. We’ve become consumption robots.

    And according to the latest reports on our health — ranging from our youth to adults, we are fat and lazy and getting worse each year. The public costs of this are now in the billions.

    What’s ironic is the worst offenders of public health are red Nanny states. Coincidence?

    This past election in Muncie was curious to observe because the FBI has been investigating the corrupt democrat party for over three years. The energy behind replacing the corrupt element has been high. Democratic officials have been arrested with more arrests forthcoming.

    Yet, the municipal election brought forth 25% of registered voters. Three solid years of reporting by the newspaper of corruption within our local government and only 25% of registered voters could take a whopping 5 minutes of their day to exercise their right to vote.


    We have become a society that sits on its ass watching television and eating junk food only to be entertained with propaganda convincing us to act against our self-interests.


    I’d like to see our institutions of higher learning leading a movement against this dumbing-down of the populace so our capitalists can take advantage of our ignorance. Still, I’ve not witnessed any evidence this will happen.

    A local faculty senate president at Ball State University called the Board of Directors (appointed by the republican state) a “politburo” for how they treated an awake president. He was quickly replaced with a puppet.

    Albert Einstein pointed this all out in the 1940s, and it was ignored entirely, or most likely, used by the Oligarchy to double-down on their efforts to manipulate the masses.

    For instance, why would any member of the working class be against unions?? 😉

    The Oligarchs have effectively eliminated union membership causing wages and benefits to drop over the past four decades drastically, and members of the working class have been convinced to be hostile against unions which work in their favor (if not corrupted).

    Why would 50% of the populace be against universal healthcare, considering how bad our health is and how much it costs today?


  7. Civic literacy and reading seem to have gone out of fashion at the same time. Perhaps there’s a correlation?

  8. New Mexico magazine has a regular half page on this topic! Some of them would be simply hilarious if it were not so sad.

  9. Theresa — some cold medicines require ID — part of an effort to control their use in creating meth. Even a lily-white greybeard like me has to show ID.

    If there was justice in this world, the idiots at the West Lafayette CVS that perpetrated this travesty would be unemployed right now.

  10. Recently there was a post on my Facebook page of an overweight, scruffy looking, middle age white man holding his homemade cardboard sign stating, “Democrats don’t even have their own pledge of allegiance; ours says and to the Republic for which it stands”, I corrected his spelling of “allegiance”. Less than 3 years ago, the local CVS warehouse suddenly fired all illegal immigrants working there on a Saturday morning. If they knew they were illegal to fire them, they knew they were illegal when they hired them. I doubt that was not the “game in town” that morning; it was when Trump was readying his ICE troops to begin their roundups.

    Trump still doesn’t understand that Puerto Rico is an American territory, evidenced by his denial of disaster assistance which he also wanted to deny Hawaii after the volcanic eruption followed by a hurricane – because they are an island. His denial of disaster funds for the California wildfires negates the fact (probably unknown to him) that most of those fires are on federally owned land. Raking an entire state is his solution to that problem.

    I am going to stick with those who believe the young man’s race was the reason for denying his right to legally purchase medication in a Lafayette CVS pharmacy. Staff is not concerned about civic knowledge or civil rights when you can see brown skin and hear an accent. Was the medication considered a controlled substance or one of the OTC medications which are flagged due to being used to develop street drugs? It all boils down to racism. My local CVS has had a low count of African-American employees and they don’t seem to stay employed there very long. Is it ignorance or fear which keeps racism and bigotry alive; and Trump’s approval to release it in any form will be only one major factor to correct IF we can get him out of OUR White House.

  11. Ooops; rethinking that cardboard sign, it actually said, “Liberals don’t even have their own pledge of allegiance…”

  12. I have long been a champion of statehood for Puerto Rico, which should solve the problem, at least officially (contra: See New Mexico, Hawaii, and Trump’s new fence venue), though ignorance is ignorance and continuing if subtle racism is still practiced by CVS and others. The degree to which such racism is practiced probably varies with the population served. Thus here in Southwest Florida I note that we have many Hispanic clerks at my neighborhood CVS store but I’ll wager such is not the case in Duluth (assuming without knowing that there are far fewer Hispanics there though, of course, an argument can be made that a large minority of the people whose first language is Spanish are better served with Hispanic clerks). Political note – Not everyone is as dumb as the CVS personnel in Lafayette. Tucson just elected its first Hispanic woman as mayor, so there’s hope.

    Sheila need not apologize for her many blogs devoted to civic illiteracy; it’s among the top ten problems we have today, problems such as church and state etc. My unasked for advice > Keep pounding.

  13. in my thinking, this is part of our abdication of the civic duty to ensure people are educated. I don’t like charter schools for this reason. If my tax money is funding a school, I want it to teach things that help people think in a critical manner. I want them to learn civics so they know their role and duties as citizens of this country and the world.

  14. The decline of support for libraries, newspaper readership (and reading, in general) is no doubt related to the dumbing down of the citizenry.

    But in defense of ignorant Americans, why should they learn civics when their elected representatives apparently don’t need to? (And, yes, that is snark.)

  15. I am NOT surprised that people would jump to a conclusion based upon no factual first hand verification. Who needs facts, when your mind is already made up to begin with to fit this incident into your own view of the world. The presumption or default position seems to be is the clerks are racists or ignorant of geography.

    The idea that the clerks are inadequately trained or that CVS lacks a system that is readily accessible to the clerks to display what is an acceptable ID does not fit the jumping to predetermined conclusions. It is far easier in some circles to accept unproven allegations that racism or a lack of geographically expertise is the culprit.

    As White Boomer I have been asked for ID when I have purchased liquor. The clerks are almost always apologetic in saying this is “Company Policy”. I have also been asked for ID, when I purchased some pain killer after dental surgery.

  16. In sum, this collective ignorance goes back to the end of the 50s and the McCarthy paranoia, sure, but it really started rolling when Reagan/Regan got elected. They tried to eliminate the Dept. of Education in line with Friedman’s small government edicts. When that failed politically (DUH), the dumbing down of curriculum and attacks on teachers and teachers’ unions became the next blood sport for Republicans. Then, along came G.W. Bush and is idiotic (What else?) No Child Left Behind…except EVERY child got left behind. The curriculum (I taught science) was so watered down, you could see through it. The textbooks became as comic books.

    This is all part of my book, “A Worm in the Apple: The Inside Story of Public Schools”. Add to this politicalization of education for the sake of high-stakes testing to secure Federal money support, there were the parents who simply didn’t or couldn’t take the time necessary to support their children’s education both financially and in person. The deterioration of civic knowledge is, as Todd suggests, a planned action from the Lords of Serfs to keep them voting for lies and deceit. Very sinister. If a kid doesn’t know that we fought for our independence for the same reason – freedom from tyranny – he/she isn’t going to resist it happening to them. And they will vote Republican.

  17. I don’t remember if I got my civics literacy, such as it is, primarily at home or school. For sure I got my scientific cursiousity at home but my education in school so I suspect that both sources contributed.

    My impression is that what’s different now mostly is that we are too comfortable to care. We are too addicted to entertainment and now social media to learn.

    Our common culture is based on entitlement instead of accomplishment.

    It affects all of us for sure, some though much worse than others.

  18. Pete – share a lot of your observations. Would suggest that both entertainment and social media could be used easily to teach – they are just the mediums, not the message.

    Instead of TicTock (gasp – you don’t want to know about that raging with school kids), what if they were spending time with Hamilton or What the Constitution Means to Me or the like?

  19. Lester, it seems to me that the most consequential change in my 77 years is the advertising/fake news/propaganda/brainwashing exposure that we elect for ourselves in exchange for “free” entertainment in a world where nothing is without cost to us and cost benefit to others.

    We have opened our minds to the same kind of waste that we have opened our land, sea and air to for industrial dumping.

    We don’t process it any more effectively than our home planet does.

  20. I suggest that the problem we are seeing in American citizens is not a problem of forgetting civics dogma but rather a problem of buying into a new philosophy that rejects that dogma whole-cloth.

    Here’s where that thought comes from:

    Statistically, 60% – 75% of U.S. adults CAN answer rudimentary civics questions. Isn’t that what Sheila is reporting when she says 25% – 40% of respondents could NOT answer those questions?

    I would bet that in 1940 the stats would be similar, or even worse.

    From personal experience as a student and as a teacher, I knew from just a few days in each class that 40% of the students would not be able to answer such questions as adults, and I knew which students they would be. How did I know?

    Always, 10% of the students’ IQ was too low to learn such things or remember them long-term.

    Always, another 15% had other obstacles to learning: illness, eyesight, abuse, injury, hunger, weariness, depression, absenteeism, etc.

    Always, at least another 15%, predominately boys, came to school determined NOT TO LEARN, fought learning ferociously, and thought it a thing of pride to defeat every rule, every teacher, and the very idea of learning.

    So, then, as today, about 65% of all students learned enough to pass courses and actually earn graduation. And roughly half of that 65% were B students and above.

    Consider for a moment how moderately smart, self-possessed and confident that top 32.5% was then (say, 1950s through the 1970s), and compare that to the top 32.5% of present day graduates. In fact, I am very impressed when I interact with today’s top students or see them interviewed on television, thinking, Damn, those kids are smart.


    In my judgment and observation, there will always be about 30% to 35% of U.S. students who will fail to learn important stuff: math operations, language skills, history, science, and yes, civics; and there will be 65% to 70% who will accommodate those subjects to some degree, half of which (32.5%) will excel at them.

    Thus, what worries me is not the expected failure of the always present bottom 30%, but the surprising ignorance of crucial specific concepts we discover in the top 70%.

    I doubt that the republican party is entirely made up of the 35% worst educated of our country, and suspect that a good part of the 65% of the top educated people are avowed republicans. And I project that almost 100% of our political leadership comes from the 65% best educated of BOTH political parties.

    So, I purport that we STOP brandishing the percentages of people who do not recall what was taught in their school; instead, I suggest we examine what is wrong with the TOP 65% who do remember … and still prefer to go against those teachings.

    So, as I suggested at the beginning, the problem we are seeing in American citizens is not a problem of forgetting civics dogma but rather — for those who do remember what we taught them– a problem of buying into a new philosophy that rejects that former dogma.

    What are they seeing and/or experiencing that so completely convicts the history/civics theory, which they inherited (from us), that only something new, even if it is evil, seems better? Is what they are seeing actually us?

  21. Ignorance is the Achilles heel of representative government. As some who taught the subject for 3 decades, let me tell you the simple answer. Learning is remembering for the rest of one’s life and building on that learning. Not just passing a test. How do you teach that way? Several approaches to the same subject. Make students repeat answers and knowledge in front peers without notes or prompting. Treat it like instilling a faith. An citizen’s responsibility to preserve Liberty . Not done in a culture that gives everyone a trophy, helicopter parents, an easy advancement of the unmerited. I did it. Would not even see a way through the modern minefield. Do not if these attributions are right: Mussolini…”I love democracy! The counting of heads. The emptier the better!” and Jefferson” A people that try to be both ignorant and free are pursuing something that never was and never will be!”.

  22. Larry – thanks for the subtle analysis, but think you need to emphasize the “dogma” aspect. This could well be the key issue for the 65% who do know basic civic facts. What is lacking is taking the dogma foundation and teaching critical thinking around it.

  23. Larry,

    Your personal observations and numbers crunch are, among other things, arrogant and nihilistic in suggesting that you know all there is to know about student/child learning. IQ, for example, has long been disregarded as a true measure of intelligence. Also, many “reluctant learners” are so as a function of the quality of teacher, the lesson quality and the culture of the individual school. About the only thing I agree with you on is the poverty/nutrition/parental care aspects.

  24. Education both formal and from parenting is always an opportunity. It always will be.

    Now “practical” education must compete for limited time with technical education that’s become table stakes for modernity.

  25. How Ignorant Are We?

    This confirm what many here have observed that racism is alive and well and not limited to the old deep south Confederacy:

    Voters overwhelmingly tell Kansas City to drop Martin Luther King street name.
    Unofficial results from a ballot on Tuesday showed the proposal to remove King’s name received nearly 70% of the vote, with just over 30% voting to retain King’s name.

    The debate over the name of the 10-mile (16.1km) boulevard on the city’s mostly black east side began shortly after the council’s decision in January to rename The Paseo for King.

    According to the 2010 census, the racial composition of Kansas City was as follows:

    White: 59.2% (non-Hispanic white: 54.9%)
    Black or African American: 29.9%

  26. Vernon,
    there is a huge difference between learning to, or teaching a low-intelligence person to, function in society — tie shoes, fix a meal, dig a ditch, survive an assembly line, etc. — and teaching that same individual to be a knowledgeable citizen/voter –Constitution, Federalist Papers, separation of powers, economic stimulation, and all that jazz.

    I suggest that being confused about that difference is a large part of our problem. Not just confusion among a smattering of opinionated/arrogant individuals, like us, but confusion among the world’s philosophers, the one’s who are careless but eloquent, because it is their contorted ideas that bring us fools like John Dewey and books like Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care.

    Whether we like it or not, we are led to the slaughterhouse, not by our mostly innocent ignorance and not by our political leaders’ partly necessary greed but by a handful of yesterday’s philosophers (Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Rand, for instance), who, in hallowed halls, taught our professors who taught our leaders that tarnished reason and encrusted ethics will wash and shine once the prize is theirs.

  27. Thank you Larry for the reality check. You are right on target. Education requires a willingness and diligence to learn. Some resist it with every fibre, even from the most engaging teachers. Some feel it’ll never matter to them and learn just enough to pass then forget it. Those who learn but don’t use their knowledge will retain some but not all of it.

    There is no excuse for any adult who has graduated from school since 1950s not knowing that Hawaii is one of our 50 states or that Puerto Rico is an American territory. Then there is our President who didn’t know Puerto Rico is a U.S. terrority until well after the hurricanes first struck there.

    Yes there is much too much civic ignorance. While we need more instructional time devoted to civics, the ignorance is not always a result of what isn’t taught, but what was either forgotten or never learned or seldom if ever used. I was a wiz at algebra and geometry and doubt I remember any of it. But I loved civics and have used it every day since.

  28. In that hiatus of no federal-quality textbooks Indiana property owners are the ones who have to card anyone with access to Earth’s FATE (alcohol, firearms,tobacco, explosives) — including members of the Hoosier State workers. Here’s a handy map-based look in modern language: CVS is another Ivy League district heath service whose employees must prove they can match pictures on the signed ID. As a substitute teacher, I KNOW students like to play geography.

    The insulting worker’s contract was terminated, making another opening for an Indiana resident — so long as established for reasons other than work with controlled federal substances.

  29. Once I was present for voir dire at a civil trial. There was a woman prospective juror who hailed from Puerto Rico. One of the lawyers asked her “how long have you been living in the United States”? She answered: “I was born in Puerto Rico, so I am a US citizen”. Then he asked her: “did you apply for citizenship, because you can’t serve unless you are a citizen”. She had just told him she was a citizen. True story. This guy was a lawyer. I think he didn’t believe her when she said she was born in Puerto Rico AND was a U.S. citizen. Her answer to him was: “people born in Puerto Rico ARE US citizens.” He looked puzzled. Despite this explanation, I still think he didn’t believe her.

  30. Natacha’s witness of a lawyer and a prospective juror who hailed from Puerto Rico is a small example I will borrow to support my post above.

    There will be about two-thirds of our citizens who do well in school, some well-enough to become lawyers. And yet, in reference to the competent civic knowledge that we expect to get from that upper two-thirds of our population, we are more and more disappointed.

    When we point to what is wrong with our schools, again reference competent civic knowledge, it does little good to examine the bottom third of our graduates, who have nearly nothing to do with where we are led.

    Our problem — the problem that is leading us astray — is with the top two-thirds, the portion we wrongly presume to be “educated”.

    Michael Flynn was never part of the bottom third of his school.

    Betsy DeVos was never part of the bottom third of her school.

    Paul Manafort was never part of the bottom third of his school.

    William Barr was never part of the bottom third of his school.

    I doubt that any of the misfits and reprobates that Trump has brought into his administration was ever part of the bottom third of their school. Yet, something is wrong with them. There is something very important that they never learned, or that they rejected.

    Yet, we keep blaming our national problems on the one-third at the bottom of our education system — the one-third who will be mere followers over whatever cliff the upper two-thirds lead them to. Does anyone else have a problem with that?

  31. Sheila – never apologize for stressing civic literacy – it needs to be stressed.

    There is another brand of civic illiteracy that is wide-spread in this county, namely those that believe that a small, impotent federal government is the ideal. They seem to forget history – we have the Constitution because our experiment with a small, weak federal government under the Articles of Confederation was a total failure. I wonder how those founding fathers would have reacted if they could see a reasonably functioning government from say post-WWII until Reagan. It wasn’t perfect, but I think they would have been happy that their Constitution provided for a government that lasted so long. Also, if they understood the American experience two centuries removed from a despotic King and saw how big and densely packed this country had become, they might have seen more need for national guidance (hey Minnesota miners – you can’t poison Lake Superior and hurt Michigan fishermen – oh, the EPA, a federal response – even Nixon got some things right).

    I will point to another culprit (although I sometimes wonder if we are looking back with nostalgia for an knowledgeable populace that never was) – news. I was listening to NPR this morning celebrating 40 years of the show, Morning Edition. Discussing how Washington had changed, they noted that there were once liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats and that people would argue in the halls of congress and then go have dinner together. Then they described the rise of the tea party, how they hated Washington, slept in their offices and wouldn’t socialize with those evil Democrats. The newscaster (I don’t remember who he was) then said that both parties have moved to their extremes – there is “polarization” – Balderdash, this patently false narrative is part of the dumbing down of news to make it unoffensive – How long did it take any newscaster to say the obvious – Trump lies.

  32. I am a fairly new reader to this blog and appreciate what I have been reading and learning from Sheila and commenters. I admit I am “one of those” lacking civil literacy given it’s been such a long time since I had formal training in school.

    In all aspects of life (and if we really want to see improvement instead of possibly appearing to be elitist) while pointing out where we see improvements need to be made, it is important to provide or suggest tools and solutions. I, too, need to occasionally be reminded to think outside of my world and experience, which is why i am requesting that of you here, as well. I have seen nothing on posts or comments that would help a person like me find un-biased resources for improved learning.

    Being a person of limited means, and living in a remote location without a library, I have had a heck of a time determining which books to purchase that will help with my further education. Many hours researching online have yielded less than satisfactory results and I just this morning settled on a text from the early 1900s that might be a good first step in brushing up on my civil literacy.

    Thank you, in advance, for providing tools/resources/recommendations along with posts.

    Signed, An Old New-learner.

  33. Old-New Learner: forgive the shameless plug, but I wrote a small book for just that purpose. It is “Talking Politics: What You Need to Know Before Opening Your Mouth,” and it is available from Amazon in either paperback or ebook version.

  34. I agree that there is a certain — in Indiana perhaps a large, percentage of nominally “smart” students who refuse to learn, because why?

    They don’t want to be told what to think.

    I’m at a loss as to what to do about that.

    They turn to extreme right positions because those extreme positions (racism, even Nazism, etc.) are precisely what they are told in school NOT to think.

    I’m at a loss as to what to do about that.

    It certainly will not help to keep repeating to them what they SHOULD think. They won’t, from principle.

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