NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


December 3, 2008

Are most people, including college graduates, civically illiterate?  Do elected officials know even less than most citizens about civic topics such as history, government and economics?  The answer is yes on both counts according to a new study by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI).

  • More than 2,500 randomly selected Americans took ISI's basic 33-question test on civic literacy and more than 1,700 people failed, with the average score 49 percent, or an "F."
  • Elected officials scored even lower than the general public with an average score of 44 percent and only 0.8 percent (or 21) of all surveyed earned an "A."

Even more startling is the fact that over twice as many people know Paula Abdul was a judge on American Idol than know that the phrase "government of the people, by the people, for the people" comes from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

Other results from several basic survey questions:

  • Some 30 percent of elected officials do not know that "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" are the inalienable rights referred to in the Declaration of Independence; and 20 percent falsely believe that the Electoral College "was established to supervise the first presidential debates."
  • Almost 40 percent of all respondents falsely believe the president has the power to declare war.
  • Some 40 percent of those with a bachelor's degree do not know business profit equals revenue minus expenses.
  • Only 54 percent with a bachelor's degree correctly define free enterprise as a system in which individuals create, exchange and control goods and resources.
  • About 21 percent of Americans falsely believe that the Federal Reserve can increase or decrease government spending.

The new study follows up two previous reports from ISI's National Civic Literacy Board that revealed a major void in civic knowledge among the nation's college students.  This report goes beyond the college crowd however, examining the civic literacy of everyday citizens, including self-identified elected officials.  But according to ISI, the blame and solution again lie at the doorstep of the nation's colleges.

"There is an epidemic of economic, political and historical ignorance in our country," says Josiah Bunting, III, chairman of ISI's National Civic Literacy Board.  "It is disturbing enough that the general public failed ISI's civic literacy test, but when you consider the even more dismal scores of elected officials, you have to be concerned.  How can political leaders make informed decisions if they don't understand the American experience?  Colleges can, and should play an important role in curing this national epidemic of ignorance."

Source: Report, "Our Fading Heritage," Intercollegiate Studies Institute, November 20,2008.

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