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New study finds widespread political illiteracy

I have to admit that I’m kind of ambivalent about torture.  I know I should be against it and all, but I honestly believe that it has its uses.  For example, I sometimes think that everyone who advocates torture, and everyone who defends torture, and everyone who engages in torture should be subjected to a little torture themselves.  Just so they can see “both sides,” so to speak, and come to a fair and balanced conclusion about the pros and cons of torture.

But because I know my advocacy of a little bit of torture for torture advocates (except myself, of course) runs contrary to some of my country’s legal traditions, I was frankly stunned by the results of a new study conducted by the conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute, “The Coming Crisis in Citizenship.” According to the ISI, only about one-third of American elected officials understand that torture and indefinite detention are not authorized by the Constitution, and only about one-third of our representatives understand the principle of “habeas corpus.” The ISI study is a dire warning to us all:

The Coming Crisis in Citizenship: Higher Education’s Failure to Teach America’s History and Institutions presents scientific evidence that, for the very first time, reveals how much American colleges and universities—including some of our most elite schools—add to, or subtract from, their graduates’ understanding of America’s history and fundamental institutions. Commissioned by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), the present study represents the culmination of a multiyear research process involving a team of professors experienced in the classroom, ISI’s National Civic Literacy Board, and the University of Connecticut’s Department of Public Policy.

In the fall of 2005, the University of Connecticut’s Department of Public Policy (UConnDPP) was contracted by ISI to undertake the largest statistically valid survey ever conducted to determine what colleges and universities are teaching their students about America’s history and institutions. UConnDPP asked roughly 100 United States Senators from roughly 50 states across the country 60 multiple-choice questions in order to measure their knowledge in four subject areas: (1) American history; (2) government; (3) America and the world; and (4) the market economy. Taken together, senators’ answers to these questions provide a high-resolution image of the state of learning about America’s history and institutions throughout the nation. The results are far from encouraging. In fact, they constitute nothing less than a coming crisis in American citizenship.

Perhaps the most remarkable finding of the study is that only one of every 55 Republican Senators, on average, has an adequate understanding of America’s fundamental principles and political institutions.  The finding is all the more remarkable when one considers that Senator George Allen (R.- Virginia), long known for his efforts to preserve Southern culture and heritage, sits on the ISI’s National Civic Literacy Board and yet was unable to answer a single multiple-choice question correctly with regard to civil liberties and American legal traditions.

For the most part, Allen’s GOP colleagues fared no better.  Twenty-four of 55 Republican senators could not define “habeas corpus,” and seventeen believed that waterboarding was expressly permitted by the Eighth Amendment.  Most strikingly, fifty-two of the 55 answered “true” to the true/false question, “Article II of the Constitution allows the President to set aside all other provisions of the Constitution if he truly believes that he has been selected by God to hold the office of the Presidency.” Three maverick senators refused to answer the question directly.

The ISI/ UConnDPP study also indicates that only three quarters of Senate Democrats are capable of identifying and explaining America’s civil traditions.  Of the remaining one quarter, seven answered “true” to the statement, “American civil liberties may be legitimately set aside in the event of really, really close electoral campaigns in which one fears being labeled ‘soft’ on terrorism.” Five others responded by writing in the margins of the question, “May I focus on the economy instead?”

Intercollegiate Studies Institute National Civic Literacy Board member Michael Novak offered an explanation for the surprising findings.  “There is no doubt as to who is to blame for the sorry state of Americans’ understanding of their own history and traditions,” Novak said in a prepared statement.  “The fault lies with liberal college professors, secular humanists, and busybodies like Glenn Greenwald.  Detention orders will be drawn up within the next thirty days, with special attention to those states and Congressional districts in which there are really, really close electoral campaigns.”

I congratulate the Intercollegiate Studies Institute for an important and timely study, and I salute the National Civic Literacy Board for its efforts to educate all Americans about our history and fundamental institutions.

Posted by on 09/29 at 11:20 AM
  1. Thanks, Michael, for this. With your permission, I’d like to post the letter to the editor of my local paper I sent in this morning:

    I’m not writing today to protest the recent Congressional bills allowing President Bush the power to “interpret” the Geneva Convention’s bans on torture. Let others describe what legalizing “waterboarding,” “long time standing,” “cold room,” “stress positions,” and other practices means in terms of our self-understanding as a people and our moral standing in the community of nations. Let others explain how this means that the government will now openly treat people in the 21st century the way slave owners treated their slaves in the 19th century. Let others explain how this bill fits with the decent respect to the opinions of mankind we once prided ourselves on possessing. Let others explain what use a free press is when it passes on without comment, let alone protest, the Administration’s use of Orwellian phrases like “interrogation techniques.” Let others explain how we could have defeated the Nazis and the Soviets without such laws.

    No, today I’d like to remind us that the Congress has just given away the right to habeas corpus, which is the very heart of English common law since the Magna Carta of 1215. What that means is the President can simply label anyone, anywhere, American citizen or not, an “enemy combatant,” and lock them away indefinitely without the ability to have their day in court. What this means is the end of the rule of law and the beginning of the rule of men. What this means is the end of the American experiment in individual rights. What this means is that we no longer live in the country of our ancestors.

    Thanks. Now is, indeed, the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country.

    Posted by John Protevi  on  09/29  at  12:41 PM
  2. Now the President is more powerful than a king.

    Look for a doozy of a signing statement.

    Posted by  on  09/29  at  12:55 PM
  3. I love the report’s cover photo. The kids all have a dumbfounded thousand-yard stare, like preppy versions of Lonnie the Banjo Player in Deliverance.

    Posted by  on  09/29  at  12:59 PM
  4. John, that’s a terrific letter.  Will you run for office in Louisiana, please?

    Peter, I believe the signing statement will consist of a simple, “let freedom me reign!”

    And Sven, isn’t that photo great?  the kids look so stunned—it’s almost as if someone has just informed them that they’ve been classified as enemy combatants and have no right to an attorney.

    Posted by  on  09/29  at  01:07 PM
  5. I’d say the word “Coming” is unnecessary in the report’s title.

    What that means is the President can simply label anyone, anywhere, American citizen or not, an “enemy combatant,” and lock them away indefinitely without the ability to have their day in court.

    On the bright side, at least the President and his pals aren’t a bunch of petty, vindictive morons who might just lock people up for spite. Oh wait ...

    Posted by  on  09/29  at  01:11 PM
  6. Somebody needs to put the “fun” back in “funridays.”

    Posted by Roxanne  on  09/29  at  01:19 PM
  7. In a way, I’m finding all this a breath of fresh air. Public torture policy represents a level of honestly I never thought I’d hear from an American administration in my lifetime. Well… maybe honesty isn’t the quite the right word.

    As ugly as injustice is, I can’t help but be happy to see it coming out into the daylight.

    Posted by Central Content Publisher  on  09/29  at  01:52 PM
  8. Clearly because, as punctilious Latinists, “habeus corpus” did not make sense to them.  The NYT can’t spell it either.

    Posted by  on  09/29  at  02:00 PM
  9. Fun! And/or patriotically/civically educational!

    Posted by  on  09/29  at  02:09 PM
  10. I always told the entire gang that Berube was not above a spelling joke.  I tell them he is one of us!

    Posted by Pinko Punko  on  09/29  at  02:10 PM
  11. Will you run for office in Louisiana, please?

    Unfortunately, I’m not eligible, because I am not yet under indictment. I’m working on a complicated insurance / banking scam, and if all works out and I’m hauled before the grand jury, then I can run. It’s a little known provision of the Louisiana state constitution, a hold-over from colonial days.

    Posted by John Protevi  on  09/29  at  02:13 PM
  12. Oh, this blog’s ninth typo would have to be an embarrassment to my high school Latin.  I hereby sentence myself to two and a half years of declining “cornu” and reciting the second conjugation subjunctive.

    Posted by  on  09/29  at  02:22 PM
  13. Another remarkable finding was that the longer an elected official had been in office, the worse their Citzenship IQ was.

    Arriving at the correct interpretation of this result led to a brief, but heated debate among the ISI staff. Some maintained that this indicated that time spent in elected office compounded the initial sustained damage in college. Others supported the interpretation that this indicated that the more damage an official had sustained in college, the more successful they were in retaining their elected position. Fortunately, consensus was reached quickly after the wooly-heads of the Compounded Damage School were introduced to some newly-sanctioned, extremely persuasive rhetorical devices. After being cleaned up, all but one endorsed the correct view with admirable enthusiasm.

    The ISI Press Office refused to either confirm or deny the whereabouts, or even the existence, of a missing staff member whose name was being withheld until his family could be rounded up informed.

    Posted by  on  09/29  at  02:25 PM
  14. That’s it, the terrorists have won. They have stolen your ability to be arbitrary and fun on Fridays.

    I don’t recognize my own country anymore.

    (Captcha: “analysis,” as in, “how nice that the professionals freed from Geneva Conventions will really be able to put the ‘anal’ in analysis now.")

    Posted by George  on  09/29  at  02:27 PM
  15. Just one teeny tiny little bitty quibble, Michael, but it is on-topic in an “illiteracy-flame” thread:  it’s spelled “habeas” rather than “habeus” — though this bill would make “habemus” seem even more fitting.

    Posted by Raven  on  09/29  at  02:32 PM
  16. It is indeed on topic, Raven, and I am uttering many “d’oh"s this afternoon.  Fortunately, “d’oh” requires neither conjugation nor declension.  It’s like “ecce,” as in “ecce boneheaded mistake!”

    Posted by  on  09/29  at  02:35 PM
  17. "That’s it, the terrorists have won. They have stolen your ability to be arbitrary and fun on Fridays. “

    What could be more arbitrary than indefinite confinement?

    “I don’t recognize my own country anymore.”
    Think of it as Halloween, except that the country is dressed up as a cold-war era dictatorship.  Don’t even THINK about given’ me a popcorn ball.  That’s the fun way to think of it.

    Arbitrary and FUN!

    Posted by  on  09/29  at  02:37 PM
  18. I hope it won’t be considered liberally biased of me to define & discuss habeas corpus, or “dangerous” to recap an argument or two against torture in class on Monday. Though I suppose students could rightly complain that I’m teaching history instead of literature.

    captcha: “justice.” I mean, come on.

    Posted by  on  09/29  at  02:43 PM
  19. When you get “theory” as the captcha word, it is like being tortured by the professor of dangeral studies.  Is this a test, a pop quiz, a challenge to be ignored---aaaaaaarrrrrgggg. So first i was hoping that the ISI and their NCLB (notorious civil libertarian bastards) were part of a great new parody, but realized this is not joke, not joke.

    what colleges and universities are teaching their students about America’s history and institutions.
    I am pretty sure that the curriculum strands that contain the frameworks and standards for teaching US history and institutions (particularly the Constitution) are those for k-12.  Indeed, under the NCLB (ESEA II version, not the ISI’s) the instruction, assessment, and accountability for teaching US history and institutions belongs to both the 8th grade and the 11th grade teachers, schools, districts, and states.  But then how many 14 year olds are going to bother reading Article One Section 9 clause 2, least of all remember the 18 clauses in Section 8 when they are tested on the material in the 10th grade? It is hard enough convincing their future teachers that the Bill of Rights is worthy of being taught more than once in those 6-12 grade years. 

    Of course none of this material is nearly as important to the NCLB (Bushco version) as is basic math, writing and reading achievement test scores.  No wonder the kids grow up thinking torture is no big deal.

    Posted by  on  09/29  at  03:06 PM
  20. Justice indeed, Pat. 

    I realize this is pedantry, but what I lament about the NYT losing the “a” is the reminder that habeas is a verb, in the subjunctive, with a certain force to it—you gotta turn the guy over!  (With the “u” it looks like some sort of misbegotten adjective describing a held prisoner, which I suppose is now quite appropriate.) The erosion of the phrase is also an erosion of the history wrapped up in it—the consequences of *not* turning prisoners over to judicial process.

    So, less fun, but more arbitrary!

    Posted by  on  09/29  at  03:06 PM
  21. Now Bush can prance around the White House like Mel Brooks’ rendition of King Louis XVI did around Versailles in The History of the World, Part I; do whatever the fuck he wants to do (rub his face in the bosom of a pretty courtier, smack around a filthy peasant, or torture a “terrorist” or two), then look at the camera wryly, grin, and chortle, “It’s GOOD to be the King!”

    We live in strange times, my friends.

    Posted by mat  on  09/29  at  03:15 PM
  22. Michael,

    I live in the bay area and originally heard of this study through the local newspaper, which had a front page expose on the Is our college kids learning meme.

    This aroused my curiousity and I looked up ISI.  Its trustees include a Coors and Edwin Meese.  Its publications include advice for picking Christian colleges for homeschooled youth.

    I could only find one example question of the survey.  First, I would think there should be some transparency-- I mean, what is it exactly that our college kids don’t know?  Second, I suspect the questions tested the Republican version of history, as opposed to the history taught by college professors.  (E.g., what were the causes of the civil war?  Do tax cuts increase or decrease budget defecits?)

    It seems that the “free market” as an American value is ahistorical (as opposed to just assuming personal freedom included economic freedom).  Not many gloried the free market qua free market until the 1980s.  Surely, Thomas Jefferson did not include “freedom of contract” in the Declaration of Independence.

    Further, advanced understanding tends to make answers more ambiguous, not less so.  In the simplest sense, if a question is Who was the first european to discover America, the answer may be Leif Erickson instead of Christopher Colombus.

    Finally, I noticed the conclusions of the press release were not stated in the manner of most public policy studies.  The conclusions and recommendations are often hedged as much as possible to hew as close as possible to the data.  Here, there was much fanfare and they were as alarmist as possible.  Ultimately, I wonder if there is any connection to the survey results and the recomendation.  There may be better ways for college students to score highly on the survey.  For example, perhaps, instead of taking more classes, there should be an indoctrination officer in every dorm, or all class materials should be subject to approval by a government appointed Civic Education board.



    Posted by  on  09/29  at  03:26 PM
  23. Where do the stats on the senators/the passage you are quoting come from? I clicked on the link to the report and couldn’t find them in it.

    Posted by  on  09/29  at  04:03 PM
  24. Nevermind, didn’t read the post carefully and was full of wishful thinking.

    Posted by  on  09/29  at  04:09 PM
  25. No problem, Chantal—that was, in fact, the Arbitrary But Fun® part of today’s post!

    Posted by Michael  on  09/29  at  04:18 PM
  26. Louisiana state constitution, a hold-over from colonial days.

    Posted by  on  09/29  at  04:46 PM
  27. "Louisiana state constitution, a hold-over from colonial days”

    Actually specified in the Napoleonic codes. And you know ‘oo made zem up!

    Posted by  on  09/29  at  04:49 PM
  28. Actually specified in the Napoleonic codes.

    Which brings us to Marlon Brando explaining to Kim Hunter why she was his property in “A Streetcar named Desire”.

    Posted by  on  09/29  at  08:06 PM
  29. What am I supposed to tell my 8-year old when she asks, “Daddy, do we torture in America?”

    Posted by  on  09/29  at  11:02 PM
  30. You could always tell U. No Who this:

    Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo.  Latin always raises the civility quotient. 

    OK, fine, Catullus 16.  Our more delicate flowers should not click.  Which means everyone just did!

    Posted by Pinko Punko  on  09/29  at  11:11 PM
  31. G. Yokel, you’re supposed to say, “we used to do it in secret, but now we do it openly.  That’s called progress, my child.”

    Or words to that effect. 

    Posted by Michael  on  09/29  at  11:11 PM
  32. Pinko: Is Catullus staging a comeback these days? I seem to be seeing more of him on the Web, and in particular that lovely poem.

    See? Education is improving. They never taught me Catullus at Piedmont High.

    As my daughter said about the difficulty of rendering that very line into English, “I could have retained the exact sense of the Latin construction, but lost the force of the obscenity.” The kids are OK: She knew which to choose.

    Posted by Porlock Junior  on  09/30  at  04:46 AM
  33. It’s as if hockey hooligans have taken over the conservatory and now only the braying for the blood of the 23rd letter of the alphabet counts as music.

    Posted by Kirby Olson  on  09/30  at  09:58 AM
  34. No, no, no.  You’ve all missed the point.  Bush is merely ensuring that the Republican Party continues to deserve the moniker “Party of Lincoln"--its namesake having suspended habeas corpus in Maryland in 1861. 

    You guys are just a bunch of Roger Taneys.

    Posted by  on  09/30  at  10:21 AM
  35. Did anyone notice the photo for the cover of the ISI report on the page Michael linked to?  In the photo, there is a blond-haired young woman who seems to have been told by the ones taking the photo, “Look clueless.”

    Nice touch, ISI.  They might as well have had her wear a blue dress.

    Posted by mitchell freedman  on  09/30  at  10:21 AM
  36. Kirby, shouldn’t you be playing with your toys or something? The grownups are trying to have a conversation. Now go outside and play with your friends like a good little boy. It’s a beautiful Saturday morning and I’m sure little Billy down the street would like to play baseball with you. That’s a boy!

    Michael, re: 31, actually, the executive branch now need never admit to doing anything openly. We are now just open about the fact that we now have no ability whatsoever to know what the executive branch is up to. Which is why, Kirby, you poor deluded child, this has nothing to do with W, but with the principles by which a free people runs its republic.

    Posted by John Protevi  on  09/30  at  10:33 AM
  37. this has nothing to do with W, but with the principles by which a free people runs its republic

    This morning, I would have agreed with you John, but I have had an abrupt change of heart. I can see now that I was driven to my opinions on this, and so many other things, by my irrational hatred (disguised as convictions) of George W, America and all things good and useful. For instance, when I saw this at The Editors this morning I thought it was about the second-funniest thing I had read this month - but now it just seems bitter and wrong.

    For some time, I had been vaguely worried that I was making suboptimal economic decisions. And that some of them were based on my principles and political beliefs. This, in addition to furtive late-night blog reading, a damning order confirmation from Amazon, and receipts from political donations, did not go unnoticed by my family. Motivitated by the shining example of the “cave-in” of the three Republican mavericks and the discovery in my sock drawer of a hidden copy of Common Sense; they were moved to have a “Political Expediency Intervention”.

    And such good timing too! A local gym was quick to see the potential for profit in the latest legislation out of Congress, and was advertising a program they called 12-Steps the Quick Way: We Administer, You Renounce. Bad Habits, Bad Behavior or Bad Beliefs - Wiped Away in 3 Sessions or Less.

    I had my first session this afternoon and we very quickly moved through the first 4 steps. (In fact, this post is part of Step 5 - admitting to another human being the exact nature of my wrongs.) I now see that my “principles”, were merely “prejudices” misspelled. Biff says if I “do real good” on this step, I can skip the next session and I would really, really, really like that alot.

    Is this good enough Biff? I can write more stuff on other blogs if I need to. Like “It would be silly for Pennsylvania to not re-elect a Senator with seniority.”, I have lots more.

    Posted by  on  09/30  at  08:21 PM
  38. Great link, JP, The Editors are da bomb. Did you see the way they made Broderella look like a certain Maoist member of the extreme wealth of Paris?

    Posted by John Protevi  on  09/30  at  11:14 PM
  39. I’ve spent the weekend brushing up on The Body in Pain. 1985, man, those were the days. Apparently people (Elaine Scarry, anyway) said things like, “It is difficult to think of a human situation in which the lines of moral responsibility are more starkly or simply drawn, in which there is a more compelling reason to ally one’s sympathies with the one person and to repel the claims of the other.” She’s talking about torture, it turns out, “the other” being torturers, you know, not, like, a reconquistador. I’m relatively young, little more than an infant in terms of political consciousness; I certainly don’t know what it felt like to be a slave in the 19th Century. Thinking about it, it occurred to me the last time I felt quite like this was in the days after 9/11.

    Posted by  on  10/01  at  03:24 AM
  40. Hi Pat, if I were to attempt to channel Walt Kelly by way of Hardt and Negri, I’d say “We have met the multitude, and they is us.”

    Posted by John Protevi  on  10/01  at  09:34 AM
  41. Mordancy, via YouTube:

    “Trusting in the sanity and the restrain of the United States is not a strategy, and it is not an option.”

    Posted by  on  10/01  at  12:28 PM
  42. Great link, JP,
    No. it is a very bad link.
    (psst… John, ixnay on the expressions of solidarity until I get iffBay off my ass, please.)

    errr ummhmm… Kirby is right, in their heart of hearts, all of these self-styled liberals know they would actually be for torture and the suspension of habeus corpus if Clinton were president.

    Posted by  on  10/01  at  02:05 PM
  43. Yes, JP, how well I remember the chorus of hockey hooligans (aka The Left) in the 90s howling for torture and suspension of habeas corpus. The new ABC project “The Road to Abu Ghraib” will show in detail how only the brave efforts of Ken Starr kept the country from the nightmare of the Clenis with the power of the lettres de cachet.

    Posted by John Protevi  on  10/01  at  02:53 PM
  44. “It is difficult to think of a human situation in which the lines of moral responsibility are more starkly or simply drawn, in which there is a more compelling reason to ally one’s sympathies with the one person and to repel the claims of the other.”

    Do you think Newt had this in mind this morning when he appeared on Fox News Sunday???

    WALLACE: But, during all those months, they left Foley in the House Republican leadership. They left him as the head of the congressional caucus dealing with exploited children. No second thoughts about that?

    GINGRICH: Well, you could have second thoughts about it, but I think had they overly aggressively reacted to the initial round, they would have also been accused of gay bashing. I mean, the original notes had no sexual innuendo and the parents did not want any action taken.

    WALLACE: Well, how would it have been gay bashing?

    GINGRICH: Because it was a male-male relationship. And it had no — there was no proof, there was nothing that I know of in that initial round that would have led you to say in a normal circumstance that this is a predatory person.

    Posted by  on  10/01  at  04:23 PM
  45. Inspired by the Scarry reference, I’ll srongly recommend you check out this gem by Joan Dayan.  It’s on the US prison system, but I don’t think it takes a genius to connect the dots from her take on supermaxes to current debates over Abu Ghraib, Guantanomo, and now habeas corpus and torture.

    Posted by The Constructivist  on  10/01  at  06:09 PM
  46. If it’s too difficult, check out her Cruel and Unusual 2004 Boston Review piece.

    Posted by The Constructivist  on  10/01  at  06:17 PM
  47. I would like to extend an invitation to you to join in on a collective blogging section of our upcoming winter issue of Reconstruction.  The issue is the “Theories/Practices of Blogging.” In addition to the special section of posts on blogging there will be about a dozen essays on blogging.

    The deadline is October 20th.

    Our intent in this section of the issue will be to collect a wide range of bloggers and link up to their statements in regards to why they blog (something many of us are asked) and any statement they have on the theories/practices of blogging.

    If you already have a post on this you can feel free to use it, or, if you are interested, you can submit a new one.

    We will link to each statement from the issue at our site, with the intent of creating a hyperlinked list of statements on blogging that can serve as an introduction to blogging (or an expansion of knowledge for those already blogging).

    If you are interested please contact me at mdbento @ gmail.com

    On another note:

    Thanks for adding to the university life of Urbana-Champaign area when you were there (I was at Illinois State U and met you when you guest lectured in Charlie Harris’ class and started coming down afterwards to partake in the rich environement surrounding your center)--you were missed when you left.

    Posted by Michael Benton  on  10/01  at  10:54 PM





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