by Andrew Romano, Newsweek
Theyâ€™re the sort of scores that drive high-school history teachers to drink. When NEWSWEEK recently asked 1,000 U.S. citizens to take Americaâ€™s official citizenship test, 29 percent couldnâ€™t name the vice president. Seventy-three percent couldnâ€™t correctly say why we fought the Cold War. Forty-four percent were unable to define the Bill of Rights. And 6 percent couldnâ€™t even circle Independence Day on a calendar.
Donâ€™t get us wrong: civic ignorance is nothing new. For as long as theyâ€™ve existed, Americans have been misunderstanding checks and balances and misidentifying their senators. And theyâ€™ve been lamenting the philistinism of their peers ever since pollsters started publishing these dispiriting surveys back in Harry Trumanâ€™s day. (He was a president, by the way.) According to a study by Michael X. Delli Carpini, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication, the yearly shifts in civic knowledge since World War II have averaged out to â€œslightly under 1 percent.â€
But the world has changed. And unfortunately, itâ€™s becoming more and more inhospitable to incurious know-nothingsâ€”like us.
To appreciate the risks involved, itâ€™s important to understand where American ignorance comes from. In March 2009, theEuropean Journal of Communication asked citizens of Britain, Denmark, Finland, and the U.S. to answer questions on international affairs. The Europeans clobbered us. Sixty-eight percent of Danes, 75 percent of Brits, and 76 percent of Finns could, for example, identify the Taliban, but only 58 percent of Americans managed to do the sameâ€”even though weâ€™ve led the charge in Afghanistan. It was only the latest in a series of polls that have shown us lagging behind our First World peers.
Most experts agree that the relative complexity of the U.S. political system makes it hard for Americans to keep up. In many European countries, parliaments have proportional representation, and the majority party rules without having to â€œshare power with a lot of subnational governments,â€ notes Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker, coauthor ofÂ Winner-Take-All Politics. In contrast, weâ€™re saddled with a nonproportional Senate; a tangle of state, local, and federal bureaucracies; and near-constant elections for every imaginable office (judge, sheriff, school-board member, and so on). â€œNobody is competent to understand it all, which you realize every time you vote,â€ says Michael Schudson, author ofÂ The Good Citizen. â€œYou know youâ€™re going to come up short, and that discourages you from learning more.â€
It doesnâ€™t help that the United States has one of the highest levels of income inequality in the developed world, with the top 400 households raking in more money than the bottom 60 percent combined. As Dalton Conley, an NYU sociologist, explains, â€œitâ€™s like comparing apples and oranges. Unlike Denmark, we have a lot of very poor people without access to good education, and a huge immigrant population that doesnâ€™t even speak English.â€ When surveys focus on well-off, native-born respondents, the U.S. actually holds its own against Europe.
Other factors exacerbate the situation. A big one, Hacker argues, is the decentralized U.S. education system, which is run mostly by individual states: â€œWhen you have more centrally managed curricula, you have more common knowledge and a stronger civic culture.â€ Another hitch is our reliance on market-driven programming rather than public broadcasting, which, according to theÂ EJC study, â€œdevotes more attention to public affairs and international news, and fosters greater knowledge in these areas.â€
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