They’re the sort of scores that drive high-school history teachers to drink. When NEWSWEEK recently asked 1,000 U.S. citizens to take America’s official citizenship test, 29 percent couldn’t name the vice president. Seventy-three percent couldn’t correctly say why we fought the Cold War. Forty-four percent were unable to define the Bill of Rights. And 6 percent couldn’t even circle Independence Day on a calendar. How Dumb Are We?
The answer to the question "How dumb are we?" is, obviously: pretty dumb. But you knew that. We know we don't know anything. Never mind the rest of the world, we mostly don't even know about our own country's history.
Newsweek goes through and discusses the reasons for this. Complicated political system, etcetera. Seems like it's always been this way, Europeans know a whole lot more about the world than we do.
In March 2009, the European 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 same—even though we’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.
You're not surprised.
Does it matter? You bet. The ignorant person's vote counts exactly the same as the knowledgeable person's. That's probably the most serious argument against democracy, the counterargument being that there is no system that can reliably tell the two apart, and whatever you set up will immediately be exploited by the power-hungry.
Here's where it matters:
The current conflict over government spending illustrates the new dangers of ignorance. Every economist knows how to deal with the debt: cost-saving reforms to big-ticket entitlement programs; cuts to our bloated defense budget; and (if growth remains slow) tax reforms designed to refill our depleted revenue coffers. But poll after poll shows that voters have no clue what the budget actually looks like. A 2010 World Public Opinion survey found that Americans want to tackle deficits by cutting foreign aid from what they believe is the current level (27 percent of the budget) to a more prudent 13 percent. The real number is under 1 percent. A Jan. 25 CNN poll, meanwhile, discovered that even though 71 percent of voters want smaller government, vast majorities oppose cuts to Medicare (81 percent), Social Security (78 percent), and Medicaid (70 percent). Instead, they prefer to slash waste—a category that, in their fantasy world, seems to include 50 percent of spending, according to a 2009 Gallup poll.
Needless to say, it’s impossible to balance the budget by listening to these people. But politicians pander to them anyway, and even encourage their misapprehensions. As a result, we’re now arguing over short-term spending cuts that would cost up to 700,000 government jobs, imperiling the shaky recovery and impairing our ability to compete globally, while doing nothing to tackle the long-term fiscal challenges that threaten … our ability to compete globally.
There you go, democracy at work.
You want to take the test? Newsweek has it HERE.
On the other hand, Slate had an article last week where a Canadian who took the citizenship test points out that you have to give a lot of wrong answers to pass it. After some introductory fluff, the author, Dafna Linzer, writes:
After years of steep filing fees and paperwork (including one letter from Homeland Security claiming that my fingerprints had "expired"), it all came down to a test. I passed, and, my fellow Americans, you could, too—if you don't mind providing answers that you know are wrong.
Take Question 36. It asks applicants to name two members of the president's Cabinet. Among the correct answers is "Vice President." The vice president is a cabinet-level officer but he's not a Cabinet member. Cabinet members are unelected heads of executive departments, such as the Defense Department, or the State Department.
The official naturalization test booklet even hints as much: "The president may appoint other government officials to the cabinet but no elected official may serve on the cabinet while in office." Note to Homeland Security: The vice president is elected.
Still, a wonderful press officer in the New York immigration office noted that the White House's own Web site lists the vice president as a member of the Cabinet. It's still wrong, I explained. I told her that my partner wrote an entire book about the vice president and won a Pulitzer Prize for the stories. I was pretty sure about this one. A parade of constitutional scholars backed me up.
My immigration lawyer accompanied me to my interview. In the security line, I told her I was bothered by Question 16: Who makes the federal laws?
Each of the three possible answers, it seemed, was incomplete. The official answers were: "Congress"; "Senate and House (of representatives)"; "(U.S. or national) legislature." I'm not a lawyer but even Canadians watched Schoolhouse Rock. Where, I wondered, was the president, whose signature is what makes a bill into a law?
My lawyer sighed, she agreed. But: "If you get asked that question, just give the official answer," she said. I didn't get that question.
I also wasn't asked Question 1: What is the supreme law of the land?
The official answer: "the Constitution." A friend and legal scholar was aghast. That answer, he said, is "no more than one-third correct." He's right.
Article VI, clause 2 in the Constitution, known as the Supremacy Clause, explicitly says that three things—the Constitution, federal laws, and treaties—together "shall be the supreme law of the land."
Question 96 asks: Why does the flag have 13 stripes? The official answer: "because there were 13 original colonies." In fact, the flag has 13 stripes for the 13 original states. The Problem With Question 36: Why are so many of the answers on the U.S. citizenship test wrong?
She gives lots more examples. It's like her lawyer says, don't try to give the right answer, just give the official one. It seems to me a lot of things are like that.