Can you name the three branches of American government—legislative, executive and judicial? If so, you are among the one-half of Americans who know this very basic fact about the U.S. government and Constitution.
The Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), which earlier has conducted in-depth studies of what American college students know, and don’t know, about civics, now reports equally depressing facts about grown-ups. It appears that adults, too, lack the civic knowledge they need to be informed citizens and intelligent voters.
ISI administered a very basic test on American history, government and economics to 2,500 Americans age 25 and older. The multiple-choice test asked citizens to identify terms that everybody should know, such as the New Deal, the Electoral College, Sputnik, “I Have a Dream” and progressive tax.
The 2,500 adults scored an average of 49 percent—that means they get a pitiful F. Those who had received a bachelor’s degree averaged 57 percent on the test, compared to 44 percent for those with only a high school diploma. Worse still, 164 adults who had held elected office also scored an average of 44 percent.
Almost 40 percent of respondents said they thought the president (rather than Congress) has the power to declare war. Only 50 percent knew that Congress shares authority with the president over U.S. foreign policy. And almost one in four thought Congress shares authority over U.S. foreign policy with the United Nations.
Americans who lack knowledge of our country’s history, Constitution and institutions really have no frame of reference to judge current politics and policies. Federal law requires public schools to teach about the U.S. Constitution on Constitution Day, Sept. 17, but it looks like American adults need those lessons, too.
The 2006 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) Civics Test revealed that the majority of eighth-graders could not explain the purpose of the Declaration of Independence. No wonder young voters are not shocked at those who talk about “interdependence,” globalism and becoming “citizens of the world.”
It’s not just that American citizens lack knowledge of historical and constitutional facts about our country, but they also show a declining appreciation of who we are. A survey by Harris Interactive reported that 84 percent of respondents believe we have a unique American identity, but 64 percent believe this identity is weakening, and 24 percent believe we are already so divided that a common national identity is impossible.