Maybe Michael Moore is Right
A new report by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute has been getting a lot of attention lately. The Institute administered a civics quiz to a variety of individuals—young people, elected officials, and others, and the results were dreadful. That average score was forty-nine percent; only 0.8 of test takers got an A. Somehow, college educators scored an average of fifty-five. And this wasn’t hard test either—it covered only the most basic aspects of American government. (For the record, I got a 96%. Take the test here)
This would be worrisome, except it only confirms what most people already know, or at least suspect—the majority of Americans have no idea how the country works. It isn’t hard to find evidence of this fact—any “man on the street” segment on TV or radio (think Jay Leno) is a pretty strong indication of that fact (unless it merely shows that the sort of people who want to be on TV enough to appear on those segments aren’t fountains of civic knowledge). And most people can cite numerous examples of incredible ignorance from their own experiences with others. (If you can’t, you either mingle was an unusually intelligent set, or might want to brush up on your American history knowledge).
This ignorance is, of course, deplorable, but it’s also probably not going away. The state of public education might be deplorable, but a lot of people have a stake in preserving the status quo, and since these people also happen to be the people in charge of public education, they’ll probably get their way.
The NEA and AFT are reasonably happy with the way things are. Their membership includes the vast majority of all teachers. Teachers are hard to find, and so wield a lot of power in labor talks. Any real educational reform will be passed over the teachers unions’ dead bodies, and it’s doubtful anyone will have the will to do that. So we’re not very likely to see American civic literacy rise anytime soon.
(Although maybe not knowing who Susan B. Anthony was will be the least of our problems—Americans lag behind other countries is science and math too, which you’d think will be a problem in the future).
The fact that most Americans might as well be living in Estonia for all they know or care has some interesting implications. One is that public opinion is, by and large, massively ill-informed. The majority of Americans support abortion and oppose amnesty for illegal aliens, facts that supporters of abortion and opponents of amnesty take great pride in. But that support means little—most Americans, evidently, don’t take positions on issues based on a broad based understanding of all the factors involved, but take positions based on ignorance.
Another point—both parties claim to speak for the average guy. If they really do, that might explain much of the incompetence in Washington.
And a final point: many commentators point to Obama’s win over John McCain as proof of an Obama mandate. That’s debatable on many levels—most obviously, I’d think you’d need more than 53% of the vote to claim a mandate. But in American politics, it seems safe to say that nobody can get a real mandate—most voters don’t know, and don’t care, enough about a candidate’s policies to mandate them one way or another. People really do vote on a candidate’s image—they can’t understand his philosophical message.
Conservatives don’t often agree with Michael Moore, but perhaps he’s right on one point-- maybe Americans really are idiots. The fact that Americans lack even the most basic knowledge of our government is disgraceful—and deadly harmful to our democracy.