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The most discredited bromide in American civic life is: “Give the American people the facts, and they will make the right decisions.” 

But who is giving them the facts?  Fox News? Rush Limbaugh? Bill O’Reilly? Lou Dobbs? The hysterical Chris Matthews?  

I don’t think so. These people are entertainers pitching themselves as journalists.

Or maybe the fact-gatherers are ABC’s Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos, who spent the first 50 minutes of the last Obama-Clinton debate asking non-questions for which they surely deserve the year’s top Inanity Awards. 

Charley and George are not journalists; they’re “gotcha” peddlers. Their interest is in ratings and money, not facts. 

The short answer is nobody. And the result is a tragically uninformed electorate. 

But this state of affairs didn’t start with TV talking heads. It started in our middle and high schools, with the parents of the young people who attend these schools and with those who teach those students. 

The intellectual poverty of our educational system was recently highlighted in an article in the Journal of Higher Education by Ted Gup, a professor of journalism at Case Western Reserve University and author of “Nation of Secrets: The Threat to Democracy and the American Way of Life”  (Doubleday, 2007). 

Gup recounted the following experience: “I teach a seminar called ‘Secrecy: Forbidden Knowledge’. I recently asked  my class of 16 freshmen and sophomores, many of whom had graduated in the top 10 percent of their high-school classes and had dazzling SAT scores, how many had heard the word "rendition." Not one hand went up. This is after four years of the word appearing on the front pages of the nation's newspapers, on network and cable news, and online. This is after years of highly publicized lawsuits, Congressional inquiries, and international controversy and condemnation. This is after the release of a Hollywood film of that title, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Meryl Streep, and Reese Witherspoon.” 

Gup wrote that this information deficit was no aberration. He said, “Nearly half of a recent class could not name a single country that bordered Israel. In an introductory journalism class, 11 of 18 students could not name what country Kabul was in, although we have been at war there for half a decade. Last fall only one in 21 students could name the U.S. secretary of defense. Given a list of four countries — China, Cuba, India, and Japan — not one of those same 21 students could identify India and Japan as democracies. Their grasp of history was little better. Some students thought that Islam was the principal religion of South America, that Roe v. Wade was about slavery, that 50 justices sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, that the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1975.”


Should we be surprised? I don’t think so.

The study of civics has virtually disappeared from our middle and high school curricula. And many of the few schools that still teach this subject are using a textbook – now in its 11th edition -- that the widely respected Center for Inquiry says contains “inaccurate and misleading statements, in particular in its analysis of certain constitutional law issues, including school prayer and global warming."  

And despite the ubiquity of blackberries, laptops, and access to television and the Internet by our youth, survey after survey has validated the sorry state of their knowledge, particularly about American history and America’s civic life.

For example, one survey found that 52% of Americans could name two or more of the characters from "The Simpsons," but only 28% could identify two of the freedoms protected under the First Amendment. Another poll found that 77% of Americans could name at least two of the Seven Dwarfs from "Snow White," but only 24% could name two or more Supreme Court justices.

Yet another survey showed that only two-thirds of Americans could identify all three branches of government; only 55% of Americans were aware that the Supreme Court can declare an act of Congress unconstitutional; and 35% thought that it was the intention of the founding fathers to give the president "the final say" over Congress and the judiciary. 

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William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and elsewhere for the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development. He served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy Administration and now (more...)
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