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Friday, September 29, 2006

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 Michael on 09/29 at 11:20 AM
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