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Education Reporter

Adults, Too, Know Very Little About Civics
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Can you name the three branches of American government? If so (legislative, executive, and judicial), you are among the one-half of Americans who know this basic fact about the U.S. Constitution. The nonprofit Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) has already released two studies of what American college students know about civics (See Education Reporter, May 2007). A third and equally depressing study now shows that adults, too, lack the civic knowledge they need to be informed citizens and voters.

ISI administered a very basic test on American history, government and economics to some 2,500 Americans age 25 and older. The test asked citizens to identify, in a multiple-choice format, such key terms and names as the "New Deal," the "Electoral College," "Sputnik," "Susan B. Anthony," " 'I Have a Dream,' " and "progressive tax." The 2,500 adults scored an average grade of 49%, an embarrassing F.

Those who had attended college fared a little better than those who had not. Test-takers with a bachelor's degree averaged 57% on the test, compared to 44% for those with only a high school diploma. 164 test-takers had held elected office, and their average score was 44%.

Only 27% of respondents knew that the Bill of Rights prohibits the establishment of an official religion. Almost 40% said they thought the president has the power to declare war. Only 50% knew that Congress shares authority with the president over U.S. foreign policy; almost one in four stated that Congress shares authority over U.S. foreign policy with the United Nations.

Americans were especially weak on the economic principles of the free market. For example, when asked why it is that "free markets typically secure more economic prosperity than government's centralized planning," only 17% of the college graduates who took the test correctly answered that "the price system utilizes more local knowledge of means and ends." 41% of college graduates said it was because "more tax revenue can be generated from free enterprise."

"Without knowledge of your country's history, key texts and institutions, you don't have a frame of reference to judge the politics and policies of today," said ISI's Richard Brake, who heads the institute's American Civic Literacy Program. (USA Today, 11-19-08)

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