So claims the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which just concluded a five-year study on the American public’s knowledge of its foundational legal document. The bad news: the general public gets an F, with just a 54% average on the 33-question civics test. The worse news: those who identified themselves as public officeholders scored an average of five points worse than the general public:
The survey asks 33 basic civics questions, many taken from other nationally recognized instruments like the U.S. Citizenship Exam. It also asks 10 questions related to the U.S. Constitution.
So what did we find? Well, to put it simply, the results are not pretty.
Elected officials at many levels of government, not just the federal government, swear an oath to “uphold and protect” the U.S. Constitution.
But those elected officials who took the test scored an average 5 percentage points lower than the national average (49 percent vs. 54 percent), with ordinary citizens outscoring these elected officials on each constitutional question. Examples:
- Only 49 percent of elected officials could name all three branches of government, compared with 50 percent of the general public.
- Only 46 percent knew that Congress, not the president, has the power to declare war — 54 percent of the general public knows that.
- Just 15 percent answered correctly that the phrase “wall of separation” appears in Thomas Jefferson’s letters — not in the U.S. Constitution — compared with 19 percent of the general public.
- And only 57 percent of those who’ve held elective office know what the Electoral College does, while 66 percent of the public got that answer right. (Of elected officials, 20 percent thought the Electoral College was a school for “training those aspiring for higher political office.”)
There are a couple of caveats about this test. First, the sample for the general public was a robust 30,000 respondents, but the subsample of elected officials only comprised 165 of those. That is a pretty small group from which to extrapolate conclusions about the entire population of elected officials.
Still, these results are less than confidence-building, aren’t they? Of the 165, 33 apparently thought the Electoral College was a school. Over 80 of the elected officials couldn’t name the three branches of federal government. The “wall of separation” quote causes quite a few errors in public discourse, most recently in the gotcha question asked of Christine O’Donnell, and to be fair, some Presidents have had some trouble understanding that the power to declare war belongs in the legislature and not the executive branch.
In one sense, this demonstrates that elections don’t always promote our best and brightest — but then again, most of us already knew that much. But it does call into question how we can expect elected representatives to “uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States” when many of them appear not to comprehend it — and when many of us don’t comprehend it, either. The biggest lesson here is that we need to do a much better job of teaching the Constitution in primary education … and that maybe a reading of the Constitution at the beginning of the session of Congress ought to be a regular event, with mandatory attendance.
Update: I thought the public scored 49% and the elected officials 44%, but it was 54% and 49%, respectively. I’ve corrected it, thanks to Rob Port.