By William Fisher
The most discredited bromide in American civic life is: “Give the American people the facts, and they will make the right decisions.”
But who is giving them the facts?
Fox News? Rush Limbaugh? Bill O’Reilly? Lou Dobbs? The hysterical Chris Matthews?
I don’t think so. These people are entertainers pitching themselves as journalists.
Or maybe the fact-gatherers are ABC’s Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos, who spent the first 50 minutes of the last Obama-Clinton debate asking non-questions for which they surely deserve the year’s top Inanity Awards.
Charley and George are not journalists; they’re “gotcha” peddlers. Their interest is in ratings and money, not facts.
The short answer is nobody. And the result is a tragically uninformed electorate.
But this state of affairs didn’t start with TV talking heads. It started in our middle and high schools, with the parents of the young people who attend these schools and with those who teach those students.
The intellectual poverty of our educational system was recently highlighted in an article in the Journal of Higher Education by Ted Gup, a professor of journalism at Case Western Reserve University and author of “Nation of Secrets: The Threat to Democracy and the American Way of Life” (Doubleday, 2007).
Gup recounted the following experience:
“I teach a seminar called ‘Secrecy: Forbidden Knowledge’. I recently asked my class of 16 freshmen and sophomores, many of whom had graduated in the top 10 percent of their high-school classes and had dazzling SAT scores, how many had heard the word "rendition." Not one hand went up. This is after four years of the word appearing on the front pages of the nation's newspapers, on network and cable news, and online. This is after years of highly publicized lawsuits, Congressional inquiries, and international controversy and condemnation. This is after the release of a Hollywood film of that title, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Meryl Streep, and Reese Witherspoon.”
Gup wrote that this information deficit was no aberration. He said, “Nearly half of a recent class could not name a single country that bordered Israel. In an introductory journalism class, 11 of 18 students could not name what country Kabul was in, although we have been at war there for half a decade. Last fall only one in 21 students could name the U.S. secretary of defense. Given a list of four countries — China, Cuba, India, and Japan — not one of those same 21 students could identify India and Japan as democracies. Their grasp of history was little better. Some students thought that Islam was the principal religion of South America, that Roe v. Wade was about slavery, that 50 justices sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, that the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1975.”
Should we be surprised? I don’t think so.
The study of civics has virtually disappeared from our middle and high school curricula. And many of the few schools that still teach this subject are using a textbook – now in its 11th edition -- that the widely respected Center for Inquiry says contains “inaccurate and misleading statements, in particular in its analysis of certain constitutional law issues, including school prayer and global warming."
And despite the ubiquity of blackberries, laptops, and access to television and the Internet by our youth, survey after survey has validated the sorry state of their knowledge, particularly about American history and America’s civic life.
For example, one survey found that 52% of Americans could name two or more of the characters from "The Simpsons," but only 28% could identify two of the freedoms protected under the First Amendment. Another poll found that 77% of Americans could name at least two of the Seven Dwarfs from "Snow White," but only 24% could name two or more Supreme Court justices. Yet another survey showed that only two-thirds of Americans could identify all three branches of government; only 55% of Americans were aware that the Supreme Court can declare an act of Congress unconstitutional; and 35% thought that it was the intention of the founding fathers to give the president "the final say" over Congress and the judiciary.
And according to a new statewide study, thousands of Massachusetts public high school graduates arrive at college unprepared for even the most basic math and English classes, forcing them to take remedial courses that discourage many from staying in school. At three high schools in Boston and two in Worcester, at least 70 percent of students were forced to take at least one remedial class because they scored poorly on a college placement test.
Other studies sadly point in the same direction. One showed that a majority of college students thinks the press has too much freedom. Another found that they believe the freedoms of American Muslims should be restricted. Still another found that a majority of high school graduates couldn’t find China on a map. And year after year, America’s knowledge scores vis a vis other industrialized democracies keeps going south.
The totally predictable result is, as David Brooks pointed out in a recent New York Times column, “For the first time in the nation’s history, workers retiring from the labor force are better educated than the ones coming in.”
Lately, amidst our xenophobic immigration debate, there’s been lots of chatter about the new test the government is proposing to determine which immigrants qualify for naturalized U.S. citizenship. The Los Angeles Times’ Rosa Brooks writes, tongue in cheek, that it “will rigorously assess immigrants' knowledge of ‘the fundamental concepts of American democracy’," asking tough questions such as ‘Why do we have three branches of government? , ‘What is the rule of law?’ and ‘What are inalienable rights’? ”
Ms. Brooks says that requiring those who want the privileges of U.S. citizenship to have some minimal knowledge of American civics “is a great idea.” Why, she asks, “should this country mint new so-called citizens who don't know the first thing about American history or law?”
Her zinger, however, is that she wants to make native-born Americans take the test too — and deport them to their last known countries of ancestry if they flunk. Why, she asks, “should we ask first-generation immigrants to know more about the United States than the rest of us?”
Do we have reason to hope that the millions of young people who have flocked to support Barack Obama’s candidacy represent some kind of a sea change among our youth?
No, we don’t. These young people are “the best and the brightest” – far above the norm. A vastly greater number of American young people are high school dropouts, or kids who graduate from high school despite being functionally illiterate, or even those who go on to college clueless about their country’s history and government.
These are the young people who click on YouTube to amass an encyclopedic knowledge of Paris Hilton’s latest antics.
And despite the Bush Administration’s overblown claims of success for its “No Child Left Behind” program, these are the millions of kids who continue to be left behind.
And who leave our country behind in the process.