Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Weekly Published Column - A poorly informed electorate is dangerous to our democratic form of government

In a previous column I alluded to the pitiful lack of knowledge of some American voters about our government and how it works, and also of important campaign issues. I used as examples people who supported or voted for Barack Obama. I chose to highlight Obama supporters mostly because there were far more examples from them than McCain supporters.

For example, Zogby International, a respected professional polling organization, conducted a post-election poll of Obama voters, and two different programs broadcast examples which were picked by Internet sites and easily available to anyone looking for them. With the great enthusiasm for Mr. Obama in the media, one would expect to find plenty of similar examples about McCain supporters, but despite an honest effort, I have been unable to find similar examples of McCain supporters, with the exception of the woman who insisted that Mr. Obama was an Arab.

That said, and to be fair, ignorance about candidates and issues in elections, and basic knowledge of government and how it works is rampant within all ideological and political groups.

This statement is supported by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), which surveyed college students in 2006 and 2007 to determine their level of civic learning. The ISI reported that “each year, approximately 14,000 freshmen and seniors at 50 schools nationwide were given a 60-question, multiple-choice exam on basic knowledge of America’s heritage. Both years, the students failed. The average freshman scored 51.7 percent the first year and 51.4 percent the next. The average senior scored 53.2 percent, then 54.2 percent. After all the time, effort, and money spent on college, students emerge no better off in understanding the fundamental features of American self-government.”

This year, in its third major study titled “Our Fading Heritage: Americans Fail a Basic Test on Their History and Institutions,” ISI broadened the survey to learn how this collegiate failure affects the general population. The survey posed 33 questions on things that high school graduates and new citizens are expected to know to a random sample of more than 2,500 American adults of all backgrounds. Respondents were also asked about their participation in civic life and about their attitudes toward issues of governance and other aspects of civic literacy.

The results are reason for serious concern:

Seventy-one percent of Americans failed the test, with an overall average score of 49 percent. Liberals scored 49 percent; conservatives scored 48 percent. Republicans scored 52 percent; Democrats scored 45 percent. And, believe it or not, fewer than half of all Americans can name all three branches of government.

Somewhat predictably, given the results of the 2006 and 2007 surveys, a college degree does not improve things much, as respondents with a bachelor’s degree scored on average only 57 percent, which is a failing grade, and is only 13 percentage points higher than those with only a high school diploma. And, only one college graduate in four knew that the First Amendment prohibits establishing an official religion for the United States.

To make a bad situation worse, the study revealed that certain activities tend to diminish a respondents civic literacy, such things as talking on the phone, watching owned or rented movies, and monitoring TV news broadcasts and documentaries.

However, the study also showed that other activities tended to increase civic knowledge, such as engaging in frequent conversations about public affairs, reading about current events and history, and participating in more involved civic activities. These relatively inexpensive activities produced a greater gain in civic knowledge than was produced from getting an expensive bachelor’s degree.

The reality of this pitifully low the level of civic knowledge of college students and the general public ought to shock you. But if that doesn’t get your attention, how about this: Officeholders typically have less civic knowledge than the general public, scoring five percentage points lower than non-officeholders. “Thirty percent of elected officials,” the study showed, “do not know that ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ are the inalienable rights referred to in the Declaration of Independence.”

Using civics knowledge as the measure, both K-12 and higher education have done a miserable job of providing young people with vital information about their country and its government, making sure they know that information, and that they understand their role as citizens.

This level of ignorance isn’t a problem in dictatorships and other forms of government where the people have little or nothing to say about how their government operates. But in the United States, where citizen involvement in government is a duty, it is a serious issue.

Democracy is a fragile flower whose life depends on knowledgeable citizens who understand how it works and why it is important. We have seen how liberalism has eroded our country’s traditions and socialistic ideals have crept into our system over the last four decades. To what degree that is a result of a citizenry that increasingly knows less and less about its country, its foundations, and its ideals is hard to judge.

If we do not take steps to insure that the United States has an informed electorate, democracy as it was established here will not survive.

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