Friday, November 21, 2008

Are Americans Really Informed Enough to Even Cast Reasoned Ballots?

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute (IGI) released results of a 118-question survey taken of 2,508 respondents, the purpose of which was to determine what the level of civic knowledge was among American adults.  The respondents were selected to form a cross-section of American society and the results were shocking.

image You can take a portion of the test (the 33-question subset dealing only with civic knowledge) and see how you stack up.  I was dissatisfied with my 84.85%  (a B by most collegiate standards), but took some solace in knowing that was only five incorrect answers and seven percentage points above average.  Room for improvement, to be certain. 

Post your own scores as comments to this post, anonymously if you must.  I think a robust conversation about this survey and its implications is essential. 

What this should show us is that we need to take a hard look in the mirror, be honest with ourselves and dedicate our nation to reviving an interest in being education.  Talking about making education a national or local priority is not equivalent to challenging our schools to make curriculum adjustments to educate.

What is perhaps most disturbing is that the researchers did not find that any group (as an aggregate) did well.  Ivy League educated, elected government officials, rich, poor, churched, unchurched, conservative, liberal, Republican, Democrat... all were equally uninformed.

The summarized findings of the test were, as excerpted from the IGI site:

1) Americans Fail the Test of Civic Literacy

Of the 2,508 Americans taking ISI’s civic literacy test, 71% fail. Nationwide, the average score on the test is only 49%. The vast majority cannot recognize the language of Lincoln’s famous speech.

2) American Agree: Colleges Should Teach America's Heritage

We believe this whether we are young or old, rich or poor, liberal or conservative. We believe this whether we are male or female; black, white, or Hispanic. We believe this whether we have served in the military or not, and whether we attend church regularly or seldom.

3) College Adds Little to Civic Knowledge

The average score on the American civic literacy exam for those who ended their formal education with a bachelor’s degree is 57%, or an “F.” That is only 13 percentage points higher than the average score earned by those who hold high school, but not college, diplomas.

4) Television--Including TV News--Dumbs America Down

The multiple-regression analysis indicated that a person’s test score drops in proportion to the time he or she spends using certain types of passive electronic media. Talking on the phone, watching owned or rented movies, and even monitoring TV news broadcasts and documentaries diminishes a respondent’s civic literacy

5) What College Graduates Don't Know About America

Overall, the survey shows that bachelor’s-degree holders tend to know twentieth-century American history better than free-market economics and themes that pre-date the twentieth century, especially constitutional principles and the founding and Civil War eras.


The IGI is a non-profit, non-partisan group with a mission to "further in successive generations of American college youth a better understanding of the economic, political, and ethical values that sustain a free and humane society".


  1. 81.82%
    Of the six I got wrong, 3 were the same as yours!
    I have 3 teenagers and have often thought that their education should include more study of the documents that created and shaped our country - now, I'm sure of it!!

  2. Not as long as the Teachers' Union keeps the incompetent teachers in the system.

    How are the children going to learn when the students can't even read and understand the written word?

  3. What does this survey tell us?

    1st check the survey methods. It was conducted over the phone, not on a computer like you took it.

    2nd check the summary statistics on the results to maybe get a shape of the distribution. See whether, maybe, most people scored OK & then a few extremely low scorers brought down the average? Oh wait, those aren't posted on the website.

    3rd look at the statistical tests across the different demographic groups. Sure the means are different, but there are some simple stat tests which take into account the distributions as well. Oh wait, those aren't on the website either.

    4th memory recall isn't the same as knowledge

    What it tells us is that American's ability to recall factual info, some basic and others more obscure, over the phone isn't very good. Moreso tho I think it tells us that a lot about how quick people are to call other people ignorant. How a few scholars' educational priorities don't match up with most people's day to day life, which is fine b/c most people don't need to know civics to get on with their lives. & really how petty the researchers were in running & interpreting such a superficial & wasting 2,500 people's time.

    I'm sure you don't like to get calls from strangers around dinner time. How about a call for a phone-interview with 139 questions? Makes you feel bad for the participants who sacrificed a lot of time for such an arrogant study.

  4. 81.82%

    Same. NO googling or cheating of ANY kind. Good quiz!

    Can I still vote? lol.

    It'll still be liberal! ;)

  5. Of the commenters posting scores, I would have to conclude that readers of Unequal Time are above-average in their knowledge of civics.

    Not a surprise to me!


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