Kathleen Parker

WASHINGTON -- So much for the wisdom of The People.

A new report from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) on the nation's civic literacy finds that most Americans are too ignorant to vote.

Out of 2,500 American quiz-takers, including college students, elected officials and other randomly selected citizens, nearly 1,800 flunked a 33-question test on basic civics. In fact, elected officials scored slightly lower than the general public with an average score of 44 percent compared to 49 percent.

Only 0.8 percent of all test-takers scored an "A."

America's report card may come as little surprise to fans of Jay Leno's man-on-the-street interviews, which reveal that most people don't know diddly about doohickey. Still, it's disheartening in the wake of a populist-driven election celebrating joes-of-all-trades to be reminded that the voting public is dumber than ever.

The multiple-choice ISI quiz wouldn't deepen the creases in most brains, but the questions do require a basic knowledge of how the U.S. government works. Think fast: In what document do the words "government of the people, by the people, for the people" appear? More than twice as many people (56 percent) knew that Paula Abdul was a judge on "American Idol" than knew that those words come from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address (21 percent).

In good news, more than 80 percent of college graduates gave correct answers about Susan B. Anthony, the identity of the commander in chief of the U.S. military, and the content of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.

But don't pop the cork yet. Only 17 percent of college grads understood the difference between free markets and centralized planning.

Then again, we can't blame the children for what they haven't been taught. Civics courses, once a staple of junior and high school education, are no longer considered important in our quantitative, leave-no-child-behind world. And college adds little civic knowledge, the ISI study found. The average grade for those holding a bachelor's degree was just 57 percent -- only 13 points higher than the average score of those with only a high school diploma.

Most bracing: Only 27 percent of elected officeholders in the survey could identify a right or freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment. Forty-three percent didn't know what the Electoral College does. And 46 percent didn't know that the Constitution gives Congress power to declare war.

What's behind the dumbing down of America?


Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
 
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