Education

Is the Electorate Really Informed?

Just one in three Americans could pass a 10-question test derived from the U.S. Citizenship Test.

Michael Swartz · Oct. 5, 2018

While last week we were singing the praises of Millennials for staying together in matrimony, one area where they’re falling short is the understanding of our basic system of government. Then again, they’re not alone: According to a survey conducted for the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, just one in three Americans could pass a 10-question test derived from the U.S. Citizenship Test, which is required of all immigrants who wish to become American citizens. Tellingly, those under age 45 had just a 19% passage rate, meaning that fewer than one in five could answer six or more of the 10 questions correctly. (On the other hand, respondents over 65 had a 74% passage rate.)

“Unfortunately this study found the average American to be woefully uninformed regarding America’s history and incapable of passing the U.S. Citizenship Test,” said Foundation president Arthur Levine. “It would be an error to view these findings as merely an embarrassment,” Levine warned. “Knowledge of the history of our country is fundamental to maintaining a democratic society, which is imperiled today.”

Regular readers will recall that we’ve sounded this alarm bell before, particularly when Constitution Day comes around. All kidding about “Civics for Dummies” aside, though, ignorance of the basic tenets of our government leaves our citizenry vulnerable to abuse by those people who realize how simple it is to game the system to their advantage. “We don’t need a citizenry made up of constitutional experts,” wrote our own Brian Mark Weber, “but how can we expect voters to make informed decisions if they know next to nothing about our system of government or their rights under the Constitution?”

It’s almost too easy to blame the educational system, whether it’s the replacement of traditional American history by “New Civics” classwork at the college level or a lack of emphasis in high school — a glaring deficiency that prompted the Obama administration to simply stop measuring the lack of progress in teaching these subjects. Noteworthy was a 2012 Tufts University study, which found that while most states required a basic civics course for high-school graduation, only eight had a civics portion as part of mandated testing to graduate. Moreover, the remaining tests were becoming easier, having dropped their short-answer and essay requirements in favor of simpler multiple-choice questions. Those 2012 students are today donning the civics dunce cap.

Picking up on the admonition of the Woodrow Wilson Institute, the editors at The Wall Street Journal are correct in stating flatly: “It’s embarrassing.”

When just 13% of Americans can recall when the Constitution was ratified — most said 1776, meaning they can’t keep the Constitution and Declaration of Independence straight — and 60% don’t know which countries the United States fought in World War II, woe is us. And is it merely comical or downright shameful that “only 24% can identify something that Ben Franklin was famous for, and 37% credit him for having invented the light bulb.” In Millennial-speak: “OMG!”

With Election Day less than a month away — in fact, early voting has already begun in a few select states — this study should be yet another wake-up call to ratchet up our awareness a few notches. Unfortunately, subjects that don’t lend themselves to becoming popular iPhone apps aren’t high on the Millennial priority list — and, hey, they don’t mind socialism anyway.

Barbie once complained that “math class is tough.” Maybe so, but try convincing today’s education establishment that it’s important to properly teach our young people about the Constitution and the role of government. Given these latest dismal results, it’s time to take on this toughest of tasks.

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