Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Americans are poorly prepared for citizenship

Pathetic. That’s the word for it. A huge number of Americans don’t have the faintest idea what their country is all about. Most know that the 4th of July is also known as “Independence Day,” but too many have no idea of its significance.

Tonight Show host Jay Leno did a “Jaywalking” feature in which he posed questions about July 4th to random Americans on New York streets. The degree of ignorance about their country’s origins was nothing less than astonishing.

Susan, a woman of about 30, thought we won our independence from America. Asked what country King George ruled, Susan struggled to find an answer and finally said … “Greece.”

A younger woman named Molly thought Martha Washington sewed the first American flag, and when prompted by Jay with the first name “Betsy,” Molly supplied the last name: Ford. When asked, “And what did Paul Revere say when the British were coming?” Molly didn’t know.

An unidentified young man thought the general who led the colonial soldiers was named “Churchill.”

“Why did Washington cross the Delaware?” Jay asked a bearded fellow. After some thought, he ventured, “To get to the other side?”

Jennifer identified herself as an instructor of college business, general education and computer courses. When asked what was celebrated on July 4th, she answered, “The 4th of July,” and thought we achieved our independence in, “oh … 1922?” She wisely declined to identify her employer.

A middle-aged fellow said the number of original colonies “right now, I guess, thirty?” His wife was called in to help. Jay asked if she helps her teenage son with his homework, and she said she did. He asked what happened on the 4th of July. “I have no clue,” she replied. The son was called in, and answered the question “What happened on Independence Day?” with, “Independence broke out.” The three stumped family members then summoned grandpa, a man probably in his 60s. He knew the answer to every question, including where the Statue of Liberty came from (France), and what bird appears on the Great Seal (bald eagle), all without stopping to think.

If you think these are isolated examples that were edited for effect and do not represent how little Americans know about their country’s history, you would be wrong.

In 2005 The Washington Post published an article by Naomi Wolf that said, “…only 47 percent of high school seniors have mastered a minimum level of U.S. history and civics, while only 14 percent performed at or above the ‘proficient’ level…” She added that middle school students in most states are not required to take classes in civics and government. More recent statistics are not much better.

Every American over age 15 ought to know the answer to those basic questions, like that grandfather did. What do these dismal performances say about our culture; our education system; our future?

Once upon a time there were year-long civics and US history classes in junior high or high school, and students learned about their country’s foundations, how the government works and their role as citizens. Are these subjects no longer taught in public schools, and if not, why not? If they are, why are so many people ignorant about civics and US history?

Americans also don’t know much about basic economics. They don’t understand how business works; what happens to the money that people spend and how it circulates through the economy creating jobs, paying salaries, buying more products to sell or raw materials with which to produce new products, and producing profits that make it worthwhile for the owners to keep businesses operating.

They don’t understand that when government is too big and spends too much, it undermines economic growth by transferring resources needed by the productive private sector to drive the economy to the unproductive, inefficient public sector. Government cannot exist without a strong, vibrant private sector, which suffers when excessive taxation is imposed to support unnecessary and unauthorized bureaucracy.

Economist Henry Hazlitt explained the problem of economic ignorance in his brilliant book Economics in One Lesson: “The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy … tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.”

It is serious enough that millions of Americans are poorly educated about their country’s founding principles and basic economics, but when that ignorance infects those running our government – as it does today – our future and our liberty are in danger, as we now see. Elected public servants have failed to follow Mr. Hazlitt’s rule.

Recent economic policies and those favored by the Congress and the Obama administration demonstrate that ignorance of economic principles is pervasive among most Democrats and more than a few Republicans. Some of them also don’t know their history and civics.

A prime example of excessive government is the federal Department of Education that controls public education, which has failed miserably in the critical need to teach civics, history and economics.

A good step toward restoring government to sensible and proper levels would be to shut down the DOE.

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