Culture, Science & Faith

Don't Know Much About...

A new survey finds that Americans are shockingly ignorant about our nation.

Sep. 22, 2014

Special commentary by Arnold Ahlert

The ignorant masses

Last Wednesday, September 17, was Constitution Day, marking the 227th anniversary of that wondrous document’s ratification. Unfortunately, a new survey released the same day by the Annenberg Public Policy Center reveals an embarrassing but ultimately predictable level of public ignorance regarding its contents.

The numbers are stark. While just 36% of the 1,416 adult respondents could name all three branches of the federal government, another 35% couldn’t name a single one. Only 27% of Americans know it takes a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate to override a presidential veto, and over one-in-five (21%) believes a 5-4 Supreme Court decision will be sent back to Congress for reconsideration.

Even worse, the survey reveals the term “low information voter” is not only distressingly accurate, but maybe far more endemic than even an ardent pessimist might have imagined. When asked which party has the most members in the House of Representatives, 38% correctly answered Republicans, while 17% said Democrats, and a whopping 44% admitted they didn’t know. That last number represents a 17 point increase from the 27% who had no idea in 2011.

The numbers were no better with regard to who controls the Senate. While 38% correctly answered Democrats, 27% thought it was Republicans, and another whopping 42% didn’t know, the same 17 point increase from the 27% who didn’t know in 2011.

“Although surveys reflect disapproval of the way Congress, the President and the Supreme Court are conducting their affairs, the Annenberg survey demonstrates that many know surprisingly little about these branches of government,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC). “This survey offers dramatic evidence of the need for more and better civics education.”

What’s the likelihood of that occurring? A column I read just under two years ago haunts me to this day. In “Education’s Great Divide: My Time in the Trenches,” writer Glenn Fairman speaks of his discovery during a stint as a substitute teacher in a social studies class some 20 years earlier. It relates directly to the subject at hand. “In a dusty corner shelf of the room was a set of thirty-year-old textbooks from the mid-1960s, and although my memory cannot now relinquish their title, their contents burned themselves into my brain,” he writes. “As I flipped through the pages, I was astonished to find what I would now consider an upper-level college textbook under color of what in the high schools used to be termed ‘civics.’ … I spent the rest of the day in slack-jawed amazement, perusing what a student in a working-class town was expected to know before the mavens of education began tinkering with the curricula of our schools.”

This past summer I took the opportunity to fill a hole in my own civics education and picked up a copy of the Federalist Papers. What struck me above all else was the profound understanding exhibited by authors James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay – not of government, but of the various aspects of human nature that must be recognized and reconciled to produce a viable government. I was fascinated by the brilliance of these men and their spirited arguments in favor of the new Constitution – yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that their eloquence would be incomprehensible to the average American at the present time.

The above survey confirms my worst fears.

Unlike many of my fellow Americans, I don’t believe those who are conspicuously lacking in a fundamental understanding of our government are stupid. I believe they are ignorant, and while I used to believe that ignorance was a direct byproduct of educational establishment’s incompetence, I have changed my mind. I now believe the dumbing down of Americans is being intentionally cultivated. “From elementary school and into the colleges, disciplines of objective knowledge have been either discounted or leveled, and critical thinking has been pushed aside for the subtle indoctrination of a specific worldview,” echoes Fairman.

Unfortunately, it is the progressive worldview, a vapid stew of feel-good “isms” that has elevated “caring” above the acquisition of critical knowledge far too many Americans lack. A 2006 Zogby poll illuminates the same lack of knowledge about the three branches of the federal government – only 42% could identify them eight years ago. But that poll added a dose of cynicism to the mix, revealing nearly three-in-four of those same Americans could name each of the Three Stooges. I’d bet my life Moe, Larry and Curly could name all three branches of government. They were educated in a time before the current wave of mavens and their union collaborators took the best system in the world and tossed it over a cliff.

In a couple of recent columns, I spoke about “Jihad Chic” and what attracts young men and women to a group like ISIL, and its glorification of bloodthirsty depravity. As crazy as it might sound, the Annenberg poll gives one a hint. The foundation of our entire culture is the Constitution, and the glaring ignorance demonstrated by the poll respondents suggests a profound cultural rot – one that might be accelerating faster than we know. When our own commander in chief tells us that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant “is not Islamic,” we are in a place where truth itself is apparently optional, which in turn suggests our entire cultural ethos is being stripped of all substance and meaning. ISIL may be a savage organization, but their cultural ethos radiates clarity.

The dire implications? You can’t beat something with nothing. And we have allowed the cultural flagellators, who reduce America to little more than a nation that must atone for its “sins,” to dominate the conversation for far too long. The spectacular theories that formed the basis of our Constitution, our government and our nation have been bastardized beyond recognition, and unless we restore them to their former greatness, a giant darkness will descend. Not just upon us, but everyone who sees this nation for what it truly is: an exceptional beacon of freedom throughout the world.

The good news? During the restoration process, we have nothing to lose but our ignorance.

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