Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Our Fading Heritage

By Shawn Healy
Last week, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute released a third study on the state of civics knowledge in our nation. Titled Our Fading Heritage: Americans Fail a Basic Test on Their History and Institutions, the report adds to a growing chorus on concern about civic illiteracy and its implications for democratic governance. The Institute created a 33-question quiz (you can take it here) to a broad swath of the populace, and as can be detected from the title, the results were dismal.

71% of respondents failed the test, with an average score of 49%. Among the questions that tripped up a majority who completed the survey was a request to name the three branches of the federal government. Given broad public financial support for our nation's colleges and universities, and higher levels of attendance than at any time in our nation's history, it goes without saying that we should expect higher levels of civic knowledge among our college graduates. This is confirmed, but the average score is only 57%, or 13% higher than those who ended their education with a high school diploma.

Higher scores were attained by those who read actively, including current events in newspapers, engage in conversations with peers and family members about civic matters, and participate in civic activities beyond voting (for example, volunteering on a campaign). Those who use the Internet as a source of news and to engage in social networking also posted higher scores. Passive activities like talking on the phone, watching television (even news), and renting movies all detract from civic knowledge.

Also alarming were the low scores registered by survey respondents who have held elected office. These scores were 5% lower than those of the general population. This is either an instance of the blind leading the blind, or flawed survey methodology (the report makes no specific reference to who these officeholders are).

One can make a case that multiple choice tests are poor measures of civic knowledge, that they distract from more meaningful repositories of information essential to engaged citizenship. True, these releases make great column and blog fodder, but they also admirably direct the public's attention toward glaring deficiencies. They force us to answer difficult questions like why we should continue to subsidize higher education to the tune of billions of dollars annually when these institutions fail to impart even a basic level of civic literacy upon their students.

In order to perform our roles as citizens, we do need a common understanding of the institutions we must interact with to hold our leaders accountable. The most likely source of this information remains our nation's schools, but other entities are ready and willing to lend a hand, including the Campaign for the Civic Mission in Schools (the Freedom Museum is a member of the Illinois coalition). At a time of great civic interest on the heels of a historic election and in the midst of a consequential transition of power, the clarion bell must sound sharp calls to bottle this enthusiasm and harness it to champion our schools' civic mission.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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