WASHINGTON. One of the ironies of our society at the present time is that, as political passions rise, the knowledge of American history is in decline. Particularly, how our system of constitutional government works. Or is supposed to. The evidence of this decline is all around us. Recently, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation conducted a multiple choice poll using questions used on the test administered by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and found a shocking lack of knowledge. We are witnessing the death of the rule of law in favor of loud, disruptive political passion.
The Foundation says passing the citizenship test requires a score of at least 60 percent.
However, just 36% of the citizens were able to pass. Only 13% are able to identify 1787 as the year the Constitution is written. The poll found older Americans did better, with 74 percent of seniors answering enough questions correctly to pass.
Fewer than 1 in 5 Americans under 45 cleared the threshold.
Woodrow Wilson Foundation President Arthur Levine says,
“With voters heading to the polls…an informed and engaged citizenry is essential. Unfortunately, this study found the average American to be woefully informed regarding America’s history and incapable of passing the U.S. Citizenship Test. It would be an error to view these findings as merely an embarrassment. Knowledge of the history of our country is fundamental to maintaining a democratic society. Which is imperiled today.”
The evidence of this sad reality has been building for some time.
Are you smarter than a Texas Tech University student?
Several years ago, a student group at Texas Tech University went around campus and asked three questions:
- “Who won the Civil War?”
- “The name of our Vice President?”
- “Who did we gain our independence from?”
Students’ answers ranged from “The South,” for the first question to “I have no idea,” for all three of them. However, when asked about the television show Snookie starred in (“Jersey Shore”) or Brad Pitt’s marriage history, they answered correctly.
A study by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute surveyed more than 2,500 Americans and found that only half of adults could name the three branches of government. Studies have shown that 60% of college graduates don’t know any of the steps necessary to ratify a constitutional amendment and 50% don’t know how long the terms of representatives and senators are. Forty percent do not know that Congress has the power to declare war and 43% don’t know that the First Amendment gives them the right to freedom of speech and a third can’t identify a single right it guarantees.
Blame it on the loss of Civics education
A 2016 American Council of Trustees and Alumni report showed that, even though all 12th-grade students took a course in civics, less than a quarter of them passed a basic examination at “proficient” or above. In a survey of over one thousand liberal arts colleges, only 18% include a course in U.S. history or government as part of their graduation requirements.
Diane Ravitch, an education historian, was invited by the National Assessment of Educational Progress’s governing board, to review the results of a history and civics test in which 20 percent of fourth graders, 17 percent of eighth graders and 12 percent of high school seniors demonstrated proficiency.
She was particularly disturbed by the fact that only 2 percent of 12th graders correctly answered a question concerning Brown v. Board of Education, which she called “very likely the most important decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in the past seven decades.”
Students were given the following passage:
“We conclude that in the field of public education, separate but equal has no place,
separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
Students were then asked what social problem the 1954 ruling corrected.
“The answer was right in front of them,” said Ravitch. “This is alarming.”
The evidence of our failure to teach our history is abundant.
Fewer than half of eighth graders knew the purpose of the Bill of Rights on a recent national civics examination and only one in ten demonstrated an acceptable knowledge of the checks and balances among the legislative, executive and judicial branches. The concept of the Rule of Law or where it stems from is non-existent.
“These results confirm that we have a crisis on our hands when it comes to civics education,” says Sandra Day O’Connor, the former Supreme Court justice, who has founded icivics.org, a nonprofit group that teaches students civics through Web-based games and other tools.
Justice O’Connor says that,
“We face difficult challenges at home and abroad. Meanwhile, divisive rhetoric, and a culture of sound bites threaten to drown our national dialogue. We cannot afford to continue to neglect the preparation of future generations for active and informed citizenship.”
Historian David McCullough says that,
“We’re raising young people who are, by and large, historically illiterate. I know how much of these young people, even at the most esteemed institutions of higher learning, don’t know. It’s shocking.”
McCullough tells of a young woman who came up to him after a lecture at a respected university and said:
“Until I heard your talk this morning, I never realized the original thirteen colonies were all on the East Coast.”
Historian Paul Johnson points out that,
“The study of history is a powerful antidote to contemporary arrogance. It is humbling to discover how many of our glib assumptions, which seem to us novel and plausible, have been tested before, not once but many times and in innumerable guises; and discovered to be, at great human cost, totally false.”
The history of the world indicates that freedom is not natural to man. Freedom must be carefully cultivated and taught. Through most of history, man’s natural state has been to live under one form of tyranny or another.
If it is to endure, freedom is to be learned by one generation then carefully taught one generation to another. As Cicero (106-43 B.C.) understood:
“To remain ignorant of things that happened before you were born is to remain a child. What is human life worth unless it is incorporated into the lives of one’s ancestors and set in a historical context,”
The men who framed the U.S. Constitution were careful students of history, particularly the fate of early democracies in the ancient world, Athens and the Roman Republic. They sought to learn lessons from the demise of those early democracies. As a result, they crafted a government of limited power and divided that power between three separate branches, hoping that freedom would be preserved in this way.
As Franklin said, recognizing that the Rule of Law could be destroyed by those whose political passions run deep,
“It is a Republic, if you can keep it.”
Free societies are very fragile.
Our overheated political rhetoric spurred by our political passion at the present time, with each party portraying its adversary as a virtual enemy of freedom itself, threatens the very civility and honest competition which a properly functioning democracy requires.
The less we know of history, and we seem to know less each year, the further we move away from what the Founding Fathers understood were the necessary prerequisites for freedom.
As Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1816:
“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”