Our Fading Heritage: Take the Civic Literacy Exam

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute offers an extremely interesting Full Civic Literacy Exam.

Via AmericanCivicLiteracy.org:

The ISI civic Literacy survey was not designed to test the civic knowledge of elected officials, but it did discover evidence of an interesting pattern that may merit further exploration.

Are You Smarter Than a Politician?
Of the 2,508 People surveyed, 164 say they have held an elected government office at least once in their life. Their average score on the civic literacy test is 44%, compared to 49% for those who have not held an elected office. Officeholders are less likely than other respondents to correctly answer 29 of the 33 test questions. This table shows the “knowledge gap” for each question: the difference between the percentage of common citizens who answered correctly and the percentage of officeholders who answered correctly.
Theme of Question Citizens Elected
1. U.S. – Soviet Tension in 1962 70.09% 56.51% -13.58%
2. Declaration of Independence 83.09 69.78 -13.31
3. Sputnik 74.1 62.82 -11.28
4. Definition of Free Enterprise 41.45 32.08 -9.37
5. M. L. King’s “I Have a Dream” 80.5 71.5 -9
6. Electoral College 65.88 57.31 -8.57
7. Scopes “Monkey Trial” 67.76 59.21 -8.55
8. Susan B. Anthony 80.84 72.98 -7.86
9. Power to Declare War 53.6 45.82 -7.78
10. Business Profit 49.11 41.38 -7.73
11. International Trade 37.47 30.45 -7.02
12. FDR’s Government Programs 66.63 59.73 -6.9
13. Abortion 50.77 43.94 -6.83
14. Federal Branches and Foreign Policy 54.71 48.39 -6.32
15. First Amendment Freedoms 79.58 73.32 -6.26
16. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas 29.49 23.29 -6.2
17. FDR and the Supreme Court 25.07 19.24 -5.83
18. Taxes and Government Spending 27.7 22.12 -5.58
19. Free Markets vs. Centralized Planning 16.25 10.71 -5.54
20. Action Prohibited by the Bill of Rights 26.41 21.24 -5.17
21. Commander in Chief 79.04 74.46 -4.58
22. Anti-Federalists and the Constitution 38.22 33.82 -4.4
23. Source of phrase “a wall of separation” 18.92 15.07 -3.85
24. Policy Tool of the Federal Reserve 43.12 40.48 -2.64
25. Powers of the Federal Government 75.01 72.69 -2.32
26. World War II Enemies 68.76 66.58 -2.18
27. The Puritans 19.1 17.32 -1.78
28. Definition of a Progressive Tax 51.26 49.97 -1.29
29. Three Branches of Government 49.65 49.32 -0.33
30. Definition of a Public Good 27.6 28.03 0.43
31. Gettysburg Address 21.06 22.95 1.89
32. Fiscal Policy for Economic Stimulus 36.07 39.93 3.86
33. Lincoln–Douglas Debates 19.06 23.62 4.56

All survey respondents were asked whether they have ever engaged in any of 13 different political and civic activities. These included, for example, registering to vote, signing a petition, contacting a public official, publishing a letter to the editor, and whether they have ever been elected to a government office.

Among the 2,508 respondents, 164 say they have been elected to a government office at least once. This sub-sample of officeholders yields a startling result: elected officials score lower than the general public. Those who have held elective office earn an average score of 44% on the civic literacy test, which is five percentage points lower than the average score of 49% for those who have never been elected. It would be most interesting to explore whether this statistically significant result is maintained across larger samples of elected officials.

The elected officeholders come from the ranks of Democrats (40%), Republicans (31%), Independents (21%), and those who say they belong to no party or indicate no affiliation (8%). None were asked to specify what office they held, so the proportion in which they held local, state, or federal positions is unknown.

Not all officeholders do poorly, of course. Some elected officials rank among the highest scorers. But the failure rate on the test among those who have won public office is higher (74%) than among those who have not (71%). Officeholders scored lower on all sub-themes of the test: political history, cultural institutions, foreign relations, and market economy.

In each of the following areas, for example, officeholders do more poorly than non-officeholders:

  • Seventy-nine percent of those who have been elected to government office do not know the Bill of Rights expressly prohibits establishing an official religion for the U.S.
  • Thirty percent do not know that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are the inalienable rights referred to in the Declaration of Independence.
  • Twenty-seven percent cannot name even one right or freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment.
  • Forty-three percent do not know what the Electoral College does. One in five thinks it either “trains those aspiring for higher political office” or “was established to supervise the first televised presidential debates.”
  • Fifty-four percent do not know the Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war. Thirty-nine percent think that power belongs to the president, and 10% think it belongs to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
  • Only 32% can properly define the free enterprise system, and only 41% can identify business profit as “revenue minus expenses.”

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On some questions, Americans who have held elected office do better than Americans who have not. They are a little more likely, for example, to recognize the language of the Gettysburg Address (23% to 21%) and to know that the question of whether slavery should be allowed to expand into new territories was the main issue in the Lincoln–Douglas debates (25% to 20%).

Officeholders and non-officeholders find it equally difficult to identify the three branches of government. Only 49% of each group can name the legislative, executive, and judicial.

h/t: Doug Ross

About Brent Parrish

Author, blogger, editor, researcher, graphic artist, software engineer, carpenter, woodworker, guitar shredder and a strict constitutionalist. Member of the Watcher's Council and the Qatar Awareness Campaign. I believe in individual rights, limited government, fiscal responsibility and a strong defense. ONE WORD: FREEDOM!
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