Monday, November 24, 2008

You Are Here

How much of your country's history, civic structural organization, and founding philosophy do you think the general citizenry must know in order to keep the country functioning more-or-less as intended (or, if you're of that opinion--to return the country to a more-or-less functional place)?

There is an interesting civic literacy test online here. Go take it and see how you do. Here are the major findings of the test so far:
  • Of the 2,508 Americans taking ISI’s civic literacy test, 71% fail.
    Nationwide, the average score on the test is only 49%.
  • Americans age 25 to 34 score an average of 46% on the exam; Americans age 65 and over score 46%.
  • Americans earning an annual income between $30,000 and $50,000 score an average of 46%; Americans earning over $100,000 score 55%.
  • Liberals score an average of 49%; conservatives score 48%.
  • Americans who go to church once a week score an average of 48%; Americans who never go to church score 50%.
I'd say that's pretty appalling. I would argue that you cannot maintain a sense of nationhood and common culture in a country whose growth and energy are fed by a steady stream of immigration and an increasingly diverse population, without making an explicit and concerted effort to educate children and new immigrants about the ideas and ideals that (once?) defined us as a nation--especially since we are that very odd kind of nation that is defined by nothing other than common ideas and ideals.

I am one of those cusp babies, born at the very tail end of the baby boom and therefore not really of that generation culturally--and yet not really of GenX either. My political consciousness grew from childhood images of TV war footage, hippies wandering on the street, and Watergate. My introduction to politics and civics was tinged with an understanding that disappointment was to be expected. And yet, I was also raised singing old-fashioned patriotic songs, from "You're a Grand Old Flag" to "The Marine Corps Hymn." From the time I moved into Junior High School, at the bicentennial, I did not hear those songs again until 9/11--and then, only once.

My parents were Depression babies, WWII children, and Eisenhower teens. They missed the 60s entirely, being too busy raising children. They were not radicals. They did not raise radical children. And yet, they did not raise cynics either, though I had plenty of cynical peers, growing up. I read, and still read, Jefferson, Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman without irony or snickering. I believe in the things they wrote, even if I see scant evidence of their legacy around me. I know I should see more evidence of it. I know things would be better if I did.

A nation that wishes to be both ignorant and free is a nation that never was and never will be. Somebody once said something like that. Brad Pitt, maybe?

UPDATE: Just BTW, here's my score on the test:
You answered 31 out of 33 correctly — 93.94 %

The two questions I missed were on economics. Figures.

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