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Clueless in America

Posted: May 23, 2011 - 8:58pm

According to the latest survey of Things Americans Are Ignorant About, high school and middle school students don’t know much about civics.

The report, released two weeks ago, comes on the heels of an April poll by CNN and the Opinion Research Corp. that disclosed that most Americans are ignorant about the federal budget (median sample answer to the question of what percentage of the budget is spent on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting: 5 percent, or $175 billion a year. Correct answer: about 2,000 of the budget, or $441 million).

Last year the Pew Research Center for Just About Everything reported that most Americans are ignorant about religion. (Sample result: Fewer than half the Protestants surveyed knew that Martin Luther had inspired the Reformation.) Previous studies have shown Americans to be equally ignorant about history, geography, civil rights and current affairs.

Nobody should be surprised at this anymore, except maybe ignorant people themselves. In his “Jay Walking” segment on “The Tonight Show,” Jay Leno has been dining out on this phenomenon for decades, going up to people on the streets to ask questions like:

Jay: Where do they speak Gaelic?

Woman: San Francisco?

Jay: Who was the first man on the moon?

Woman: Armstrong.

Jay: First name?

Woman: Louie.

The question is, unless Jay Leno is standing in front of you with a microphone, does it make any difference how ignorant you are?

Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor argues that it does. “We have a crisis on our hands when it comes to civics education,” she said in response to results from the quadrennial National Assessment of Educational Progress tests showing that middle- and high-school students had lost ground in civics knowledge since 2006.

“I believe that we are at a critical point in our nation’s history,” O’Connor said. “We face difficult challenges at home and abroad. Meanwhile, divisive rhetoric and a culture of sound bites threaten to drown out rational dialogue and debate. We cannot afford to continue to neglect the preparation of future generations for active and informed citizenship.”

Since leaving the big bench in 2006, O’Connor has stayed extraordinarily engaged. She founded a group called iCivics (icivics.org) that offers civics education through Web-based games. You, too, can argue Brown v. Board of Education or become president for a day.

Fifteen years ago, Michael X. Delli Carpini, who now is dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, and Scott Keeter, now director of survey research for the aforementioned Pew Research Center for Just About Everything, argued that Americans weren’t any less informed than they’d always been.

In a book called “What Americans Know About Politics and Why It Matters,” they looked at survey questions going back to 1940. In 1945, only 45 percent knew that the government regulated radio. In 1952, only 27 percent could name two branches of government. In 1970, only 24 percent could identify the secretary of state. In 1988, only 47 percent could locate England on a map.

Through the years, they concluded, Americans gave the right answers to such questions about 40 percent of the time. Most of the clueless weren’t stupid, but merely ignorant. They weren’t motivated to learn or lacked access to information or education.

But here we are today, with more access to more information than at any point in history, with iPhones in our pockets with 932,000 times more memory than the 70-pound, 36K Apollo Guidance Computer that ‘Louie’ Armstrong used to land on the moon. And we’re still getting things right about 40 percent of time.

You can blame it on the schools. That’s always handy. On these “How much do you know about?” surveys, older people tend to get answers correct more often than younger people. Some of that may be schools, but most of it is because the longer you live, the more you’re invested in society and the more you pay attention. Who cares about the news when he’s 17 years old, particularly if it takes more than a 140-character Tweet to explain?

We’re more likely to know about gossip and show business and sports than we are civics and history, but history suggests this is nothing new, either. Bread and circuses were not invented yesterday, but today there is more bread being spent to manipulate opinion and far more circuses to distract.

Granted, this is a silly place to make this argument. If you’re reading a newspaper or a newspaper website, you’re not the problem, particularly if you’re all the way down here at the bottom of an opinion column. You’re part of what the pollsters call the “information elite.”

Voting behavior experts say everybody else takes their cues from you. This is a heavy responsibility. Wear it well.

• Horrigan is a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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