Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Make America Well-informed Again?

In the New York Times, Timothy Egan laments American's ignorance about government and public affairs, and says that things used to be different: "we have allowed the educational system to become negligent in teaching the owner’s manual of citizenship. . . . up until the 1960s, it was common for students to take three separate courses in civics and government before they got out of high school." 

It's not hard to find examples of widespread ignorance in recent years.  For example, in 2001 the Gallup Poll asked "What are the first 10 Amendments to the Constitution called?"  57% said the Bill of Rights, 6% gave an incorrect answer, and 37% said they didn't know.  When Gallup asked the same question back in the good old days (more specifically, in 1954), 33% said the Bill of Rights, 2% gave an incorrect answer, and 65% said they didn't know.  Knowledge didn't decline between 1954 and 2001--it increased.  

What about those civics courses students had to take in order to graduate?   At the time, many people didn't graduate from, or even attend, high school.  In the 1954 sample, about 32% had an 8th grade education or less and 24% had attended high school but not graduated.  That is, only a minority were high school graduates.  The percent giving the correct answer by educational level:

                                     1954         2001
HS or less                        27%        38%
Some College                  60%        61%
College graduate             74%        78%

The 2001 report didn't give a more detailed breakdown of education, but in 1954 46% of people who had graduated from high school and had no college got it right.  So within each educational level, there was little or no change between 1954 and 2001. Regardless of what people study in school, more educated people are more likely to follow the news, which means they are more likely to pick up new information and less likely to forget the things they once knew.

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

1 comment:

  1. FWIW, as someone who graduated from one of the best high schools in the US (Boston Latin) in 1972, I don't remember taking a civics course. A distant niece was applying to college and I had a chance to glance through the civics text she was studying from, and I was amazed how good it was. (She was going to a relatively affluent district suburban public school.) This was not quite 10 years ago.

    Whatever, there's quite a bit of stuff around showing that more recent generations continue to be smarter (Flynn effect) and better informed than earlier ones.