When the study was released in 2008, several findings were determined based off of the data collected. These findings provide an interesting glimpse into American culture and demonstrate an erosion of civic knowledge. The unfortunate thing about the findings is that Americans simply do not understand the system of government that our society is governed by. This is discouraging because one of the implied checks and balances on government is the citizenry of a nation. If the citizens do not understand how government works, how can they make sure that it is working properly? Consider these points of interest:
- Americans fail the test of civic literacy. Seventy-one percent of Americans fail the test with an overall score of 49%.
- Americans agree: colleges should teach America's heritage. This is one thing that many Americans can agree on despite differences on a host of many other matters.
- College adds little to civic knowledge. The average score for those earning their formal bachelor's degree is 57% (an "F"). I am sure that high school or associate's graduates do not fare much better.
- Television - including the news - "dumbs" down American. If you are like me, you have noticed that the only shows on television these days are talent shows (i.e., America's Got Talent) and police drama (i.e., CSI and Law and Order). Even the police shows are not a true depiction of real law enforcement. The news is not much better as it tends to focus on crime and entertainment rather than what happened at the local City Commission meeting last night.
- What college graduates do not know about America. Only 54% can correctly identify a basic description of the free market system, in which all Americans participate.
- Elected officials score lower than the general public. On average, elected officials score 44%, which is five percentage points lower than non-officeholders. Members of the Abilene City Commission, to my knowledge, have not taken the exam.
What does this all mean? Is it important for Americans to have some understanding of our government and its heritage? Should students be taught civic concepts in school and should it be a requirement to pass an exam similar to this before graduating (high school or college)? Needless to say, the low scores for the exam provide evidence that Americans are not appropriately tuned in to the government or the nation's traditions as we may believe. There are, of course, several reasons for this lack of knowledge. Rather than dwell on the reasons for the problem, I believe it is prudent to focus on how to resolve the problem.
There are men and women serving our nation in the military, some of which will make the ultimate sacrifice for freedoms we do not even understand. Congressional leaders are legislating law that will affect each and every citizen's life. The future of our great nation depends on individuals who are educated and willing to lead. As Thomas Jefferson said, "if a nation expects to be ignorant and free... it expects what never was and never will be." Jefferson is saying that in order to be free, we must be knowledgeable of the principles of freedom, democracy and justice. We cannot simply assume that someone else will be able to understand the methods of government and protect that which we take for granted.
I encourage you to take the Intercollegiate Studies Institute's Civic Literacy Exam and see how your knowledge compares to others. Then begin to learn more about our nation, its history and its government. Knowledge is better than ignorance and it may even help preserve our nation.