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Jewish World Review
Oct. 2, 2006
/ 9 Tishrei 5767
Dumbing down democracy
" THE "FOR DUMMIES" series of self-improvement books, which began with "DOS for Dummies" in 1991, comprises more than 1,000 titles. You name it, John Wiley & Sons publishes it "Mutual Funds for Dummies," "Breastfeeding for Dummies," "Formula One Racing for Dummies," "John Paul II for Dummies," even "Parrots for Dummies." And more are always on the way. The publisher "cranks out 200 new Dummies titles a year," reports The New York Times Book Review. "At that rate there may soon be more Dummies books out there than dummies to read them."
If only. Unfortunately, the national stockpile of dummies appears to be in no danger of running dry.
The latest evidence of the dummification of American life comes from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a venerable organization that promotes classical values in higher education. As part of a program to strengthen the understanding of America's history and political institutions what it calls "civic literacy" ISI commissioned a survey of more than 14,000 randomly selected freshmen and seniors at 50 four-year colleges and universities nationwide. The students were given 60 multiple-choice questions, testing their knowledge of US history, government, foreign affairs, and economics. The results were atrocious.
The average freshman flunked the test, correctly answering only 52 percent of the questions. The average score among seniors was equally pathetic: 53 percent. On a traditional grading scale, scores like those would get an F. Even at the colleges whose students scored highest, the average senior score was below 70 percent a D+ at best.
This wasn't a test of historical arcana or abstruse political theory. It focused on what should be a core of common American knowledge. One question asked for the source of the phrase "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." There were five choices the Federalist, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Communist Manifesto, the Declaration of Independence, or the inscription on the Statue of Liberty. More than half the college seniors didn't know the correct answer: the Declaration of Independence.
Another question: "Which of the following was an alliance to resist Soviet expansion United Nations, League of Nations, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Warsaw Pact, or Asian Tigers?" The answer, of course, is NATO. More than half got that one wrong, too.
Incredibly, 51 percent of seniors didn't know that the Bill of Rights expressly prohibits the establishment of a national religion. An even higher proportion, 55 percent, didn't know that the battle that ended the American Revolution was fought at Yorktown (28 percent picked Gettysburg). Eight out of 10 couldn't identify Social Security as the federal government's largest expense. Even with an ongoing war in Iraq, fewer than half recognized the Ba'ath Party as the mainstay of Saddam Hussein's political support.
"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free," Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1816, "it expects what never was and never will be." If he was right, American freedom is headed for a cliff. ISI was startled to find that at almost one-third of the schools surveyed, seniors actually scored lower than freshmen. Either the seniors forgot what they had known when they entered as freshmen, the report concludes, "or more ominously were mistaught by their professors." And where was this civic dumbing-down concentrated? Overwhelmingly at the most selective universities among the 50 surveyed, including Yale, Duke, Georgetown, Brown, and Berkeley.
For as much as $40,000 a year, students at such schools can count on full exposure to every reigning value of political correctness, from diversity to secularism to gay rights to global warming. But they may leave at the end of four years knowing even less about America's history and civic institutions than they did when they arrived.
As Jefferson observed, the survival of democratic liberty requires an educated public. Have we still got one? "We . . . take as axiomatic," the American Political Science Association's Task Force on Civic Education warned in 1998, "that current levels of political knowledge, political engagement, and political enthusiasm are so low as to threaten the vitality and stability of democratic politics in the United States." Civic apathy, especially among the young, is now the norm. Most college students don't vote, don't involve themselves in political campaigns, and don't follow public affairs.
As American blood and treasure are sacrificed to nurture freedom and democracy abroad, the civic skills on which our own freedom and democracy depend are slowly withering away. Perhaps John Wiley & Sons should add one more title to their extensive list: "Democratic Survival for Dummies."
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