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We The People Are Really Ignorant

A new report on civics shows Americans know less than ever about their government. Here’s what some people are doing to help.


Portraying a couple’s that has forgotten an important mutual anniversary and their mad scramble to not be caught empty-handed at the crucial moment is a comedic staple—entirely relatable, if contorted, and frequently hilarious. It’s an altogether different type of farce for a nation characterized by popular government to have little recollection of the basic structures and organizing purpose that enabled it to be of, by, and for the people in the first place.

James Madison for sure would have greeted the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s recently released survey on the “surprising uncertainty” of Americans regarding basic civic knowledge as “but a prologue to farce or tragedy or perhaps both.” In the relatively short survey administered to 1,416 adults and published on September 17, 2014 (Constitution Day), the APPC found 35 percent of respondents could not name even one branch of U.S. government. Only a little more than a third of respondents (36 percent) could name all three branches of government.

When asked whether they knew “how much of a majority is required for the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives to override a presidential veto,” 47 percent of respondents answered that they did not know, or were not sure—compared to 43 percent who answered similarly to the identical question in 2011. And while presumably the respondents did know Congress is composed of a House and Senate, 44 percent said they did not know, or were not sure, whether Republicans or Democrats controlled the House; 42 percent responded similarly regarding the Senate. (In 2011, those numbers read 27 and 27 percent, respectively.) Looked at another way, however, in 2014 only 17 percent answered falsely that Democrats control the House, while 20 percent believed Republicans control the Senate.

And what about the public’s knowledge of the basic functions of the Supreme Court? Surely, with so much marquee time in the news the past few years, the public has grasped the meaning of a Supreme Court ruling. When asked whether a 5-4 SCOTUS ruling is sent back to Congress for reconsideration, 21 percent—roughly one in five people—answered yes.

Ignorance Is a Civic Problem

A people who aim to govern themselves, Madison cautioned, “Must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.” Madison, of course, was referring to the time-honored belief that a system of government, however well devised, must be well administered if it wants to make good on its guarantees of pursuing justice equally for all its citizens and promoting the general welfare. To be well administered by citizen-officials, those (non-hereditary) officials must understand the purposes and structure, allowances and inhibitions of republican government. But to understand, people first need knowledge, and active remembrance or “frequent recourse” to fundamental principles.

Eleanor Roosevelt noted a similar thought about the importance of civic education from a young age: “Our children should learn the general framework of their government, and then they should know where they come in contact with the government, where it touches their daily lives and where their influence is exerted on the government. It must not be a distant thing, someone else’s business.”

Don’t Expect Much from Schools

Most public officials and education leaders today seem quite unenthused about reincorporating such a civic education mission, at least within public education. In 2013, the Obama administration indefinitely postponed National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exams in civics, U.S. history, and geography, and replaced these with a single, new test—technology and engineering literacy. Civics teachers increasingly feel marginalized in the age of science and math enthusiasm. And young people increasingly exhibit a lack of exposure to civic education.

A handful of lawmakers and civic leaders are making baby steps towards reversing this trend. On September 17, the same day APPC released its troubling survey results, the Civics Education Initiative (CEI) announced its intentions to introduce legislation in seven states—Arizona, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Utah—to require students to take and pass the same exam immigrants must pass to become U.S. Citizens before receiving their high school diploma or a general equivalency degree.

In each of the states, CEI has prominent co-chairs (several senators and a few governors) who will promote the legislation. CEI aims to have all 50 states adopt similar legislation by the two-hundred-and-thirtieth anniversary of the Constitution’s signing in 2017. But while fine research recently published proves that consequential civics assessments (civics tests required for graduation) do have positive effects on civic knowledge, the question remains whether answering six civic questions out of ten randomly selected from 100 possibilities is adequate for fostering civic knowledge. Something more, on the level of civics curricula, is surely needed.

Americans alternate between something resembling shock, bemused embarrassment, and indifference over their lack of civic knowledge when polls such as Annenberg’s recent are published or comedians publish camera footage of street questioning. But being ignorant of the bare rudiments of their own political system worsens national health in both the short- and the long-term. Americans are extremely dissatisfied with the direction and leaders of their government, and they have legitimate reasons aplenty for that stance. But when they do not even know the frame of reference by which to judge their elected officials, or the business of governing, and so cannot see, let alone act to bring about, the constructive alternatives possible—then it is a national tragedy indeed.