Our Fading Heritage
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.