Most Americans Fail Civics

Thanks to an article by Deroy Murdock, I became aware of a civics test and poll from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. The group’s release notes:

[L]ess than half of all Americans can name all three branches of government. And only 21 percent know the phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people” comes from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which president elect Barack Obama cited in his acceptance speech on Election night. …

30 percent of elected officials do not know that “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are the inalienable rights referred to in the Declaration of Independence; and 20 percent falsely believe that the Electoral College “was established to supervise the first presidential debates”

Almost 40 percent of all respondents falsely believe the president has the power to declare war

40 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree do not know business profit equals revenue minus expenses

Only 54 percent with a bachelor’s degree correctly define free enterprise as a system in which individuals create, exchange and control goods and resources

20.7 percent of Americans falsely believe that the Federal Reserve can increase or decrease government spending

It’s important to note that the questions are multiple choice, which makes them a lot easier to answer. Still, I did have to look up a few.

Some of the questions are more meaningful than others. For example, the phrase about “for the people” logically would fit in a variety of documents. And, today, the president does have the de facto “power to declare war,” even if war is called by some other name in such cases and the Constitution lists no such power. Most of the questions avoid such problems, and it’s a pretty interesting test. You can compare your results with the averages.

Notice that, for most questions, elected officials performed worse than the general populace. Elected officials did a bit better on the question about public goods — I suppose because they tend to use the public-goods argument as a pretext to increase government spending for projects that are not in fact public goods.

2 thoughts on “Most Americans Fail Civics”

  1. While this sad state of affairs is astounding I am not at all surprised by it.
    My oldest daughter graduated from Arvada West with a very good GPA. Still, I asked her questions that used to be on the “Constitution Test” that had to be passed to get beyond the eighth grade in California, no exceptions. She failed miserably. Many of those same questions were asked on this questionnaire.

    These were college graduates..? Please note that eighth graders HAD to pass the test…

  2. I got 32/33 without looking anything up and don’t even have a college degree (on the last question, I equated government debt with current deficit (I assumed there was no accumulated deficit, which is actually independent of current deficit or its absence, ignoring interest on the debt and debt repayment, if any) and thought they were trying to trick me by saying taxes and spending per person meant equal distribution of taxes and spending per person, but of course their statement is true if simple average is all that is meant).

    Note the Freedom of (exercise of) Religion in the Bill of Rights, First Amendment.

    –from a third=party candidate for University of Colorado Regent in the past

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