That’s the headline that is supposed to be prompted by this study by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. ISI tested freshmen and seniors at 50 colleges on 60 questions covering core questions of civics (e.g., the separation of powers and the bill of rights) as well as American history, political philosophy, and economics. The major findings highlighted by ISI give you an idea of where they’re coming from. The Anchoress seems to share their alarm. I’m not so sure.
You can take the quiz here. I took it, and I did well enough that I think my civics-teaching grandfather would be reasonably satisfied. But having taken the test myself, I am not that concerned about the below-average scores achieved by college students. It seems to me the point of civics classes — and ultimately of all public education in a representative democracy — should be to create citizens capable of governing themselves wisely. Thank goodness, our form of government does not depend on widespread public understanding of what happens when the Federal Reserve buys bonds. I also question whether it is really important for the average citizen to have the type of recall necessary to answer many of the questions on history or political philosophy in this quiz. Plato’s Republic is one of the greatest books of all time, but no one would be more shocked than Plato by the claim that the average citizen should be familiar with the general outlines of his argument.
If I wanted to use these 60 questions to test something, I think I would use them to test “classicalness.” That is, I would give this test to seniors graduating with majors in political science or government. I suspect the schools with the higher average scores would be the ones where you should send a child for a classical education in political thought. The schools with the lower average scores would be the ones where political science majors learn a lot of nonsense about opinion polling and legislative compromise. (I try to eliminate irrational biases, but I wear the rational biases on my sleeve.)
I’ll tell you what I do find both surprising and disturbing: That Catholic colleges scored so far below the average of other groups of colleges. I trust this is largely due to the fact that the Catholic schools surveyed included Notre Dame but not Georgetown. ;-)
I started this blog because I was sure my friends were smarter than the people I saw on TV. I’d love to see how reasonable minds do on this quiz, so by all means post your scores and the questions you missed. The average among folks taking the quiz on the Internet during the month of September is around 75% .