Stupid is as stupid does
By Mark Alexander
After the most recent presidential election, when, as you may recall, our once great nation exposed its collective flank -- unmitigated ignorance -- to the world, a reputable pollster, John Zogby, endeavored to determine how 66 million of us could be so profoundly stupid.
The Patriot Post reported his findings in their "Non Compos Mentis" section a few weeks ago, including, for example, that 56.1 percent of Obama supporters did not know his political career was launched by two former terrorists from the Weather Underground; that 57 percent did not know which political party controlled congress; that 72 percent did not know Joe Biden withdrew from a previous presidential campaign because of plagiarism in law school; and that 87 percent thought Sarah Palin said she could "see Russia from my house," even though that was "Saturday Night Live" comedian Tina Fey in a parody of Palin.
The Zogby polling was designed to determine how much influence the media had on shaping public opinion, and, thus, the outcome of the election. Of course, establishing that the political landscape would look very different if the media were neutral is filed under "keen sense of the obvious."
However, a report issued earlier this month by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute is more relevant to understanding why Barack Obama received so much support from those between 18 and 30 years of age -- support that put him over the top.
For the last two years, ISI has assessed the civil literacy of young people at American colleges and universities, testing both students and faculty. The civics test included a cross section of multiple-choice questions about our system of government, history and free enterprise -- questions to assess the knowledge that all Americans should possess in order to understand their civic responsibility and make informed decisions in matters such as elections.
More than 14,000 freshmen and seniors at 50 schools nationwide were given the 60-question exam. More than 50 percent of freshmen and 54 percent of seniors failed the test. (So they get dumber?)
This year, ISI went beyond the "institutions of higher learning" to assess civic literacy across demographic groups. The 2008 civics quiz asked similar questions to those asked to college and university students in previous years, but also included questions about civic participation and policy issues. The results were then subjected to multivariate regression analysis in order to determine if college and university graduates had a higher civic IQ than the rest of society.
As you might expect, 71 percent of Americans failed the test, with an average score of 49. Educators did not fare much better, scoring an average of 55 percent. As the researchers noted, "Fewer than half of all Americans can name all three branches of government, a minimal requirement for understanding America's constitutional system."
College grads flunked, answering 57 percent of the questions correctly, compared to 44 percent for high school grads.
Less than 24 percent of those with college degrees knew that the First Amendment prohibits establishing an official religion for the United States. Further, only 54 percent can correctly identify the basic tenets of the free enterprise system.
Would you be shocked to know that elected officials have a lower civic IQ than the public they ostensibly serve? Indeed, these paragons of representative government answered just 44 percent of the questions correctly. Almost a third of elected officials could not identify "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" as the inalienable rights in our Declaration of Independence.
Our Founders, those venerable Patriots who signed our Declaration of Independence and codified the liberty that is declared in our Constitution, understood that liberty could not long survive an epidemic of ignorance.
According to George Washington: "The best means of forming a manly, virtuous, and happy people will be found in the right education of youth. Without this foundation, every other means, in my opinion, must fail."
John Adams wrote: "Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right, from the frame of their nature, to knowledge, as their great Creator, who does nothing in vain, has given them understandings, and a desire to know; but besides this, they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge; I mean, of the characters and conduct of their rulers. ... Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties..."
Thomas Jefferson insisted: "Enlighten the people, generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like spirits at the dawn of day. ... If a nation expects to be ignorant -- and free -- in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be."
James Madison agreed: "A people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives. ... What spectacle can be more edifying or more seasonable, than that of Liberty and Learning, each leaning on the other for their mutual & surest support?"
Today, however, it would seem that ignorance is not only blissful but virtuous.
Mark Alexander is the executive editor of the Patriot Post.