A survey by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, released earlier this month, produced sobering results: Only 36 percent of Americans would be able to pass the citizenship test that is given to immigrants. Passing, by the way, requires a score of a mere 60 percent.
Americans, it turns out, are ignorant on any number of subjects regarding their country: the U.S. Constitution, American history, and the basic structure of our government.
The questions are not particularly difficult, by the way. They used to be what was known as common knowledge.
Lowlights from the Wilson survey include: Less than a quarter knew why the colonists rebelled against the British. More than half did not know how many justices sit on the Supreme Court. A whopping 72 percent could not name the 13 original colonies. Some 37 percent thought Ben Franklin was famous for having invented the light bulb.
And a stunning 60 percent of respondents did not know which countries fought against the United States in World War II — a particularly striking finding, given that some Americans who experienced World War II are still alive.
The deplorable results of the survey do not appear to be an outlier: a 2016 poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, for instance, found that only 26 percent of Americans could correctly identify the three branches of the U.S. government. The same poll found that 37 percent of Americans could not identify any of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.
We shudder to speculate that more Americans could correctly answer questions about the love lives of the Kardashians.
Widespread ignorance is depressing in and of itself. But as Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship Foundation, noted, “It would be an error to view these findings as merely an embarrassment. Knowledge of the history of our country is fundamental to maintaining a democratic society, which is imperiled today.”
With voters heading to the polls in a little more than a week — many have taken advantage of early voting — the problem seems ever more urgent.
Interestingly, the Foundation reported widespread differences by age.
“Those 65 years and older scored the best, with 74 percent answering at least six in 10 questions correctly. For those under the age of 45, only 19 percent passed the exam, with 81 percent scoring a 59 percent or lower,” it reported.
That suggests that the problem is the American education system: That, at some point, it made the utterly wrong-headed decision that teaching civics is no longer important. The results are plain to see: A 2017 survey by the National Education Association found that only 25 percent of U.S. students reach the level of “proficient” on the NEA’s civics assessment.
American education has many purposes, including preparing students for the economy of the future. But that’s not the only point: perhaps its most important mission is to prepare citizens for the monumentally important — and difficult — task of self government. It is self-evidently failing on that score.
The good news is, some 17 states have made passing the citizenship test a condition of high school graduation. (Neither Rhode Island nor Massachusetts has, though.) More states should do the same.
The Providence Journal