I recently came across a civics literacy test administered by Intercollegiate Studies Institute. I have to admit I got one question wrong when I took it, but, in my defense, it was an economics question. I was not at all shocked to learn that most Americans fail this test miserably. I was surprised that politicians who took the test scored worse than average Americans. Yes, you read that correctly.
Are You Smarter Than a Politician?
Of the 2,508 People surveyed, 164 say they have held an elected government office at least once in their life. Their average score on the civic literacy test is 44%, compared to 49% for those who have not held an elected office. Officeholders are less likely than other respondents to correctly answer 29 of the 33 test questions. This table shows the “knowledge gap” for each question: the difference between the percentage of common citizens who answered correctly and the percentage of officeholders who answered correctly.
|Theme of Question||Citizens||Elected
|1.||U.S. – Soviet Tension in 1962||70.09%||56.51%||-13.58%|
|2.||Declaration of Independence||83.09||69.78||-13.31|
|4.||Definition of Free Enterprise||41.45||32.08||-9.37|
|5.||M. L. King’s “I Have a Dream”||80.5||71.5||-9|
|7.||Scopes “Monkey Trial”||67.76||59.21||-8.55|
|8.||Susan B. Anthony||80.84||72.98||-7.86|
|9.||Power to Declare War||53.6||45.82||-7.78|
|12.||FDR’s Government Programs||66.63||59.73||-6.9|
|14.||Federal Branches and Foreign Policy||54.71||48.39||-6.32|
|15.||First Amendment Freedoms||79.58||73.32||-6.26|
|16.||Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas||29.49||23.29||-6.2|
|17.||FDR and the Supreme Court||25.07||19.24||-5.83|
|18.||Taxes and Government Spending||27.7||22.12||-5.58|
|19.||Free Markets vs. Centralized Planning||16.25||10.71||-5.54|
|20.||Action Prohibited by the Bill of Rights||26.41||21.24||-5.17|
|21.||Commander in Chief||79.04||74.46||-4.58|
|22.||Anti-Federalists and the Constitution||38.22||33.82||-4.4|
|23.||Source of phrase “a wall of separation”||18.92||15.07||-3.85|
|24.||Policy Tool of the Federal Reserve||43.12||40.48||-2.64|
|25.||Powers of the Federal Government||75.01||72.69||-2.32|
|26.||World War II Enemies||68.76||66.58||-2.18|
|28.||Definition of a Progressive Tax||51.26||49.97||-1.29|
|29.||Three Branches of Government||49.65||49.32||-0.33|
|30.||Definition of a Public Good||27.6||28.03||0.43|
|32.||Fiscal Policy for Economic Stimulus||36.07||39.93||3.86|
Granted, since this is a voluntary, Internet-based survey, there are probably some issues of representativeness of both samples, but these results are nonetheless remarkable. The difference in proportions for the first 17 questions are statistically significant (p < .05, two-tailed test), and the results overall between the two groups fall just outside the 95 percent confidence interval.
Perhaps these results should not seem all that surprising in light of how some politicians have recently fared on civics issues.
In light of these embarrassing incidents and data, I think we should seriously reconsider implementing literacy tests – not for voters, but for candidates. Literacy tests for voters were methods employed in southern states to keep blacks (and in some cases poor whites) from registering to vote. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 invalidated this practice.
While it is manifestly unjust to hold voters to a certain intellectual standard in order to exercise the franchise, holding candidates to a higher standard is a very different issue. The whole reason we have elections is to judge candidate qualifications and fitness for office. It is axiomatic that elected officials need a thorough grasp of civics to do their jobs effectively. Thus, I think that implementing a civics literacy test for candidates might be a good idea. Perhaps all candidates for public office should be required to take this test or the American citizenship test and have the results be disclosed publicly.
The Founders were very concerned about the virtuousness of candidates for office. Articles I and II of the Constitution outline various age, citizenship, and residency requirements for members of Congress and the president, although our Founders did not believe religion should be used to disqualify elected officials. Ironically, there are no constitutional requirements for federal judges (not even a law degree). I think a civics literacy test would be consistent with these founding values.
[H/T to the good folks at the Monkey Cage]
5 responses to “Rethinking (civics) literacy tests”
William, you write, ” It is axiomatic that elected officials need a thorough grasp of civics to do their jobs effectively.”
It is possible to imagine a theory of representation (e.g. delegate or ascriptive) that does not require a thorough grasp of civics. However, I do not subscribe to such a theory, and I wholeheartedly agree with the substance of your post.
If ever there were a justification for “gotcha media,” this is it!
Mr. Blake, I am concerned about the question about free markets versus centralized planning. I think most economists not from Vienna or Chicago would admit that the best economic systems are managed, not planned or “free.” Free markets, as we can see, lead to “too big to fail,” and I’m sure you know my feeling on bigness.
In addition, the two economics questions I missed did not have correct answers.
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