“If a Nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1816. “The functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents. There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves; nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe.”
Jefferson lived in a time when the world was progressing in knowledge and ideas, the Age of Enlightenment. He understood, as well as anyone, the benefits of education and the desire to gain knowledge. These valuable traits were among the most important aspects needed to protect one’s liberty from government encroachment. Prior to this age, however, governments were tyrannical and held on to absolute power by keeping the people mired in ignorance. If the people did not know what was going on, then it was much easier to control them.
America, by contrast, erected a barrier between government and the press, protecting the people’s ability to spread and acquire knowledge. With no television or radio to occupy their time, most early Americans were voluminous readers, devouring newspapers and other periodicals, as well as books on history, government, and economics. Armed with facts, they could keep a close eye on what transpired in Washington.
Now, sadly, we seem to be regressing, hooked on television sitcoms, reality shows, video games, and the internet, rather than reading, learning, and gaining wisdom. And this lack of knowledge is killing our country.
The Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) has conducted a major study on the knowledge of history, civics, and economics among various groups of the American populace. The results have been staggering, that is staggeringly bad. The institute crafted a simple multiple choice exam to be given to three segments – a random sampling of American citizens, college freshmen and seniors, and elected officials. The results have been published in a new report entitled “Our Fading Heritage.”
Of the two college groups, freshmen and seniors, no score was higher than 54 percent, a failing grade. The general public group scored just 49 percent and elected officials tallied the lowest of all at 44 percent. Just 0.8 percent of elected officials scored an “A” on this simple test. Somehow that shouldn’t surprise anyone!
And its not as if these questions are difficult. Here are a couple:
What are the three branches of government?
A. Executive, Legislative, Judicial
B. Executive, Legislative, Military
C. Bureaucratic, Military, Industry
D. Federal, State, Local
Less than half of the general public and only 36 percent of college graduates could correctly answer this basic question – executive, legislative, judicial – which is required on citizenship exams.
The United States Electoral College:
A. trains those aspiring to higher political office
B. was established to supervise the first televised presidential debates
C. is otherwise known as the U.S. Congress
D. is a constitutionally mandated assembly that elects the president
E. was ruled undemocratic by the Supreme Court
The obvious answer is “D” but amazingly 20 percent of elected officials answered “B”!
In the general public survey, only 21 percent knew the phrase “of the people, by the people, and for the people” was taken from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, but over twice as many, 56 percent, knew Paula Abdul was a judge on American Idol! Only 53 percent knew the power to declare war resides with Congress and 40 percent thought the power to declare war was a presidential authority. This is the obvious result of the Iraq War.
Amazingly, most Americans still do not realize that the phrase “separation of church and state” is not in the Constitution’s First Amendment. In the ISI survey less than one in five knew the phrase came from a letter by Thomas Jefferson, while almost half believed it was in the Constitution. It would probably surprise many to learn that it can be found in the old Soviet constitution but not ours!
Of college graduates, 52 percent believed the phrase “separation of church and state” could be found in the Constitution while just 26 percent knew it came from a Jefferson letter; only 33 percent knew that the First Amendment prohibited the establishment of an official religion; 18 percent could not name a single First Amendment right; 32 percent thought the president could declare war; and only 24 percent knew the main issue of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates was the expansion of slavery into the federal territories. And speaking of Lincoln, only 24 percent knew that his phrase “of the people, by the people, and for the people” came from the Gettysburg Address.
And on this last point, I don’t know why we should be surprised at this finding. You might recall that Bill Clinton apparently didn’t know it while campaigning for re-election in 1996. He incorrectly said it could be found in both the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
The chairman of the ISI’s National Civic Literacy Board, Josiah Bunting, said of the findings, “There is an epidemic of economic, political, and historical ignorance in our country. 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?”
The report finds that most of this ignorance can be traced to television. More and more Americans have their heads stuck in the television while fewer and fewer are reading. Even the TV news networks have not aided this problem. This attachment to television, according to ISI, “dumbs America down.”
But how can this trend be reversed? According to Bunting, “Colleges can, and should, play an important role in curing this national epidemic of ignorance.” But they don’t and probably won’t. Our education system has been politically dumbed down and is held captive to political correctness. And its becoming harder and harder for conservative professors to even get job interviews, let alone be hired in many major universities.
The vast majority of colleges and universities don’t require American history, government, or a basic economics class any longer. In regards to history, most institutions are now requiring world civilization survey courses, where the students get a sampling of all the world has to offer. With very few exceptions, U.S. history has been dropped as a core requirement.
In addition, rather than learning that America is an exceptional place with a positive history, college students are more likely to be instructed on the “crimes” America has committed and the cultural equality of all the world’s civilizations. Professors theorize and philosophize in history courses on what should have been rather than on the facts of American history and government. Students are not taught facts so its no surprise when they don’t know any facts.
Though this study may be just mere statistics to many, I have personal experience of this lack of knowledge among college students. In the summer of 2007 I taught a world history survey course at a university and I asked my class to tell me when the American Civil War was fought. Not one single student, among the 60 in the class, could tell me the correct answer, and the few that tried were not even close. One young lady said the 1960s, while another thought perhaps the 1930s. The most cataclysmic event in American history, one that changed the nature of the Union and the country forever, not to mention resulted in the deaths of more than 600,000 Americans, and not one single citizen in that classroom could tell me when it occurred. That’s tragic.
A dearth of knowledge of the Constitution is also prevalent in our society, as the survey indicated. The Constitution is the American Political Bible, and if we won’t read it, won’t study it, and do not understand the history behind it, we risk residing in a political hell. Couple that with elected officials who don’t know anything about our history of freedom and capitalism, and its little wonder we are in serious trouble today.
Either we listen to our Founders and gain knowledge about our great country so we can better protect it while basking in the sunshine of freedom, or fall into the darkness of ignorance and the totalitarianism that goes with it. The choice is ours.