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isi_logoNovember 26, 2008

By Rady Ananda

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute recently posted its findings from a survey of 2,508 adults, 164 of whom (7%) say they have held an elected government office at least once in their life.  Over 1,700 failed the test – 74% of public officials and 71% of the public.  Less than half can name the three branches of government. 

Only a third of public officials could properly identify a free market system (probably because we don’t have one, and they apparently don’t know this).  A little less than a third don’t know the “inalienable rights” and a little over a fourth couldn’t name one right or freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment.   

This is the third such study performed by ISI, which “was founded in 1953 to further in successive generations of American college youth a better understanding of the economic, political, and ethical values that sustain a free and humane society.  ISI directs tens of thousands of young people each year to a wide array of educational programs that deepen their understanding of the American ideal of ordered liberty.” Someone ought to; thank goodness someone is.  Here’s the breakdown by grade:


 2008 Grades No. Percent
A (90 to 100%) 21 0.80%
B (80 to 89.9%) 66 2.6
C (70 to 79.9%) 185 7.4
D (60 to 69.9%) 445 17.8
F (59.9% and below) 1,791 71.4
Totals: 2,508 100

In 2007, ISI tested 7,000 college freshmen and 7,000 college seniors at fifty universities around the nation, with a 60-question multiple-choice questionnaire.  In neither 2006 nor 2007 did any college senior score better than a D+ “and even more disturbing, seniors did worse than freshmen at some of America’s most prestigious universities – Princeton, Duke, Yale and Cornell.”

“There is an epidemic of economic, political, and historical ignorance in our country,” says Josiah Bunting, III, Chairman of ISI’s National Civic Literacy Board. “It is disturbing enough that the general public failed ISI’s civic literacy test, but when you consider the even more dismal scores of elected officials, you have to be concerned.” Maybe I’ve been wrong in my judgment of elected officials; here I thought they were corrupt, but maybe they’re just ignorant.

“Are most people, including college graduates, civically illiterate?  Do elected officials know even less than most citizens about civic topics such as history, government, and economics?  The answer is yes on both counts,” the ISI reports.  “This sub-sample of officeholders yields a startling result: elected officials score lower than the general public.  Those who have held elective office earn an average score of 44% on the civic literacy test, which is five percentage points lower than the average score of 49% for those who have never been elected.  It would be most interesting to explore whether this statistically significant result is maintained across larger samples of elected officials.” 

Admittedly, how many busy, dedicated public officials would stop working to take a survey?  I think they ought to… in fact, they ought to pass a civic literacy test BEFORE being allowed to file as a candidate.  But the failure rate for both office holders and non-office holders was shockingly high: 74% of officials and 71% of the public failed the civic literacy test.  Here’s another idea: before becoming a police officer or joining the military, you have to pass the civic literacy test, just so we know you know our rights, before you beat us, steal our cameras and throw us in jail when we peaceably assemble and protest government policies. 


The ISI reports, “Officeholders scored lower on all sub-themes of the test: political history, cultural institutions, foreign relations, and market economy.  In each of the following areas, for example, officeholders do more poorly than non-officeholders:

*  79% of those who have been elected to government office do not know what the Bill of Rights expressly prohibits.  

*  30% do not know the inalienable rights referred to in the Declaration of Independence.  

*  27% cannot name even one right or freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment.  

*  43% do not know what the Electoral College does.  

*  54% do not know who has the power to declare war.  

*  Only 32% can properly define the free enterprise system, and only 41% can identify business profit.

Ah, that must explain why we’re in a global financial meltdown and yet elected officials keep throwing our good money after their clearly failed monetary system. 

On the positive side (and this comports with personal experience), “ISI discovered that civic knowledge gained from the combination of engaging in frequent conversations about public affairs, reading about current events and history and participating in advanced civic activities is greater than the gain from an expensive bachelor’s degree alone.  Conversely, talking on the phone, watching owned or rented movies and monitoring TV news broadcasts and documentaries diminish a respondent’s civic literacy.”  (I won’t give up Dexter, though.) 

These 33 questions cover history, government, and economics – something with which all OpEdNews members should be familiar.  Take the test; report back on how you do.  (I did well – missing three questions – but I’ve been reading books and watching film from alternative media for four years now, ignoring mainstream news sources almost entirely.  And it helps that I edit the OpEdNews writers who often educate me in the process.  “Kill your TV” works!) 

On demographics:  whites did best, but multiracial folks scored a close second; men did better than women; married folk did better than non-married; age 45-64 did best of all adult age categories; childless did better than those with kids; and active or reserve military service members did slightly better than peaceniks.

I would modify one conclusion of the ISI: “If we fail to teach our children how American freedom was established and preserved, we cannot expect them to (keep it).”  While the ISI Civil Literacy Survey was not designed to test the civic knowledge of elected officials, I’d like to see a civic survey done strictly on them – in an environment where they can’t cheat.  Another conclusion I draw is that since a college degree adds little to civic literacy, and since TV News dumbs down Americans, we have more reason to defend the Internet for providing what citizens need to know.

A 68-minute press release video, along with video interviews of voters on Election Day, and a C-Span video interview of ISI’s Richard Brake can all be found here.  The response breakdown by question is here; and the test is here

Report back!  Let me know what you think, how you did, or any other related response.