Rethinking (civics) literacy tests

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
3. Sputnik 74.1 62.82 -11.28
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
6. Electoral College 65.88 57.31 -8.57
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
10. Business Profit 49.11 41.38 -7.73
11. International Trade 37.47 30.45 -7.02
12. FDR’s Government Programs 66.63 59.73 -6.9
13. Abortion 50.77 43.94 -6.83
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
27. The Puritans 19.1 17.32 -1.78
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
31. Gettysburg Address 21.06 22.95 1.89
32. Fiscal Policy for Economic Stimulus 36.07 39.93 3.86
33. Lincoln–Douglas Debates 19.06 23.62 4.56

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]


Filed under Civics Literacy

5 responses to “Rethinking (civics) literacy tests

  1. Abby

    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.

  2. If ever there were a justification for “gotcha media,” this is it!

  3. Louis D. Brandeis

    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.

  4. Louis D. Brandeis

    In addition, the two economics questions I missed did not have correct answers.

  5. Pingback: Happy Anniversary & more on civics literacy | Footnote 11

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