Anyone who's ever seen Jay Leno do one of his "Jaywalking" segments on NBC, locating average Americans and asking them factual questions on street corners, knows there are far too many Americans who know next to nothing about just about everything. They can't name our first president or don't even know what the phrase "Founding Fathers" means. Ask them to name our current vice president and watch the brain waves flat line.
Newsweek magazine recently announced its disgust after it offered the government's official citizenship test (the one we require immigrants to pass before being naturalized) to 1,000 Americans. Thirty-eight percent of the sample failed. Newsweek worried in its headline: "The country's future is imperiled by our ignorance."
The magazine was careful enough to report that civic ignorance isn't new. One study found the yearly shifts in civic knowledge since World War II have averaged out to "slightly under 1 percent." But it worried that today's interconnected world is "becoming more and more inhospitable to incurious know-nothings -- like us."
It's easy to get discouraged with the results. Sixty-five percent couldn't figure out that the Constitution was penned and adopted at the Constitutional Convention; 63 couldn't identify how many justices were on the Supreme Court (nine); and 73 percent couldn't identify that communism was what we opposed in the Cold War.
Current national leaders aren't so well known: 29 percent could not identify the current vice president (Joe Biden) and twice that percentage didn't identify the Speaker of the House (John Boehner).
Let's start with the positive angle here. It's a terrific idea to examine whether native-born citizens can pass the citizenship test and an astonishing embarrassment to learn how many can't. Some public schools have used the citizenship test as a social-studies project in civic knowledge. A daring principal could make passage of the citizenship test a high-school graduation requirement. Promoting better civic and historical knowledge is an important cause.
But this leads to a follow-up question for Newsweek and its media colleagues: Do journalists see building civic knowledge as an important part of their job?
A few years ago, when pollsters asked Americans to name two of Snow White's Seven Dwarfs and two of the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices, 77 percent of Americans polled were able to identify two dwarfs, while only 24 percent could name two Supreme Court justices.