Do You Know More American Civics than Sarah Palin? (A Lesson in Conservative Hypocrisy)

Do you know more about American civics than the famously ignorant Sarah Palin?


Or more than the 71 percent of Americans who failed a basic civic literacy quiz?

According to a recent report called Our Fading Heritage: Americans Fail a Basic Test on Their History and Institutions by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), “Of the 2,508 Americans taking ISI’s civic literacy test,” the report said, “71% fail. Nationwide, the average score on the test is only 49%. … The results reveal that Americans are alarmingly uninformed about our Constitution, the basic functions of our government, the key texts of our national history, and economic principles.”

The test consists of 33 questions on American history, the workings of the U.S. government and free market economics.

Some of the report’s findings:

  • Less than half could name all three branches of the U.S. government.
  • Only 21 percent knew the source of the phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
  • Less than one in five knew the origin of the phrase “a wall of separation” between church and state.

Civic ignorance was remarkably consistent across income, age, educational, racial, marital status, church attendance, ideological and party affiliation groups.  No group scored a passing grade, and no group knew more than 55 percent of the correct answers.

Elected official scored even worse than ordinary citizens, with only 33 percent scoring a passing grade. 

Based on these results, the ISI concludes that “America’s institutions of higher learning [have failed] to transmit to their students a basic understanding of the fundamental history, texts, and institutions of the American republic.”

The ISI then “calls upon administrators, trustees, faculty, donors, taxpayers, parents, and elected officials to reevaluate collegiate curricula and standards of accountability” and urges “leaders inside and outside of the academy with a stake in the future of American higher education to roll up their sleeves and get to work addressing the shortcomings documented in ISI’s civic literacy reports.”

From my own experience as a college professor, I have no doubt that the findings of the ISI regarding basic civic illiteracy are accurate. 

But I have questions about the ISI itself, and it’s own responsibility for the civic ignorance that it documents.

The ISI’s National Civics Literacy Board of Directors is comprised of conservative academics and policy advocates from the Hoover Institution, the American Enterprise Institute, the New Criterion, the Wall Street Journal, the National Center for Policy Analysis, Civic Enterprises, the National Association of Manufacturers, the Center for Creative Leadership and the Philip M. McKenna Foundation.

In other words, the people who run ISI are the very same people whose policies and favored candidates have destroyed the public education system on which our national civic literacy depends.

The ISI report focuses its attention and criticism on American colleges, but as anyone who has taught at the college level knows, what can be accomplished by colleges largely depends on the basic knowledge that students bring with them – that is, on what they’ve learned (or not learned) in grade school and high school. 

By advocating policies that slash funds to public education, increase class sizes, reduce teacher salaries and benefits, and eliminate early childhood and after-school educational programs, the board members of the ISI are themselves responsible for the civic illiteracy they now hypocritically bemoan.

Here’s a civics test for the board members of the ISI:

1. Tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy have resulted in:
a. Increased class sizes.
b. Elimination of educational programs.
c. Reductions in educational resources.
d. All of the above.

2. In practice, conservative (Republican) educational theory means:
a. Increased class sizes.
b. Elimination of educational programs.
c. Reductions in educational resources.
d. All of the above.

3. The members of the ISI board are in large part responsible for
a. The failed educational policies of the Bush administration.
b. The collapse of our nation’s grade schools, high schools, and community college systems.
c. The widespread civic illiteracy the ISI laments.
d. All of the above.

The correct answer for each of these questions is “d. All of the above.”

In my civics class, I’d give ISI — and the conservatives who run it — a failing grade.


2 responses to “Do You Know More American Civics than Sarah Palin? (A Lesson in Conservative Hypocrisy)

  1. I have a question for you:

    Look at this post and tell me what beverage she is drinking:

    Wild Turkey.

  2. Woohoo! I got 30/33. I feel superior to Sarah Palin.

    Oh wait… I felt superior to her before I read your post, too. Of course, that’s kind of like being proud that you’re taller than Danny DeVito – it’s not saying much.

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