“I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society, but the people themselves: and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their controul with a wholsome discretion, the remedy is, not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. this is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”
— Thomas Jefferson
We had better get started, because it is a steep hill to climb.
A report out this month called “A Crisis in Education” reveals an appalling lack of knowledge of civics by Americans in general and even college graduates.
A multiple-choice survey found Americans don’t know much about history or civics. Merely should have resulted in at least 25 percent correct answers since only four choices were given, but ignorance beats the odds
For example, only 20.6 percent could identify James Madison as the primary author of the Constitution, while 60.5 percent answered Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, who was serving as ambassador to France when the Constitution was written. Only 28.4 percent of college grads correctly named Madison, while 59.2 percent named Jefferson.
The survey found that a college education was less of a factor in civic knowledge than age. Older college grads answered more questions correctly than younger ones.
The study authors offer this explanation for the state of ignorance:
Given all the interest expressed in civic education, how has this happened? The simple answer: a proliferation of programs that do not address the problem. Too many colleges and universities confuse community service and student activism with civic education. Service learning and political engagement form a wholesome part of the development of character and, when judiciously chosen, lead to civic virtue. But without coursework in American history and government, such activities achieve little of substance. Too often, proposals for civic renewal have been overly broad and vague. While they have called for more civic education, they have generally failed to define civic knowledge or require objective assessment. Contemporary discussions of civic education also suffer from what might be called the “universalist fallacy,” which dismisses special concentration on the U.S. Constitution and the founding principles of the nation because such an emphasis makes a “normative” judgment about the priority of certain issues over others in the education of young Americans.
How can people ignorant of the lessons of history and the how their own government works make informed decisions at the polls?
“Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.”
— H.L. Mencken
“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”
— Isaac Asimov