Thursday, November 20, 2008

"Epidemic of Civic Illiteracy", Arrogance

I didn’t make up those words, they come from a Josiah Bunting III: "There is an epidemic of economic, political, and historical ignorance in our country.” According to his institution’s new study: Only half of American adults know what all of the branches in US government are. Almost four tenths of them falsely think that the president has the right to declare war. And a whopping %43 percent don’t even know what the electoral college is for. Incredible news - not in terms of its content, but in terms of its broad coverage, its blatant superficiality, and its downright arrogance.

What is civic literacy? If you're asking, clearly you don’t have any.

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute conducts annual surveys to gauge our citizens' basic knowledge about America. They’ve been doing this for the past 3 years, and after every survey they emit a minor public outcry about our nation’s growing ignorance.

Before discussing the outcry, a word on the research techniques: The latest survey was a telephone interview with 139 multiple choice questions covering civic knowledge, public philosophy, and household demographics. Even at this point, the logistics of answering factual multiple choice questions over the phone are beyond me: Audible presentation of the multiple choices is a tax on short-term memory, while you’re being asked to retrieve facts from long-term memory, while under the duress of talking to a stranger on the phone, most likely after returning home from work.

2,508 adults were called. Responses were averaged across relatively small demographic groups: Those who’d earned a Ph.D, for instance, scored a C in civic literacy, while baby boomers with a college degree earned a D, and most everyone else failed. Despite reporting group averages, the institute reported no statistical tests for group differences, and we’re given averages which are relatively useless without standard deviations (for instance, it’s possible that a few people who scored extremely low brought down the whole average). But these are minor qualms relative to the overarching message, which is that most people got an F. Shame on us.

The conclusion: We have another cause to be taken up by the American people. After all, isn’t education priceless? And how can you be an American citizen without any civic literacy? There’s poverty, world starvation and warfare, AIDS, plain old illiteracy, and now we can add civic illiteracy.

I'm reminded of my old high school civics teacher. Every week we had to memorize 10 new facts about the government. We would then be quizzed with multiple choice questions that were randomly selected from our accumulated bag o' facts. By the end of the end of year, we worked up to some 500 facts. I wince upon the memory of all the time I spent sweating over those useless inane facts, especially as there are so many richer ways to learn about government. Increasing civic literacy is not only a stupid cause, it’s a harmful one.

The face of American education is changing and it’s wonderful. Teachers at both the high school and college level are downplaying rote factual memorization in place for better educational techniques. Each new generation of kids are exponentially smarter than the last. What new generations lack in their ability to recite random facts they gain in fluid thinking, particularly when it comes to technological wizardry. Thanks to society’s plethora of scientific advances, my old high school science classes would be too rudimentary for the kids of today, just as my professors’ old classes would have been too rudimentary for me. These are points for celebration, not scorn.

Society’s ability to respond to causes is limited, and focusing on civic literacy is as arbitrary as lending federal money to banks, bailing out GM, improving health care, fighting drugs, sending a man to the moon, or focusing on any other knowledge base, be it chemistry or grammar. If more teachers were physicists than policymakers, then they'd decry physics illiteracy instead. And with good reason, as our present existence is tied just as much to physics - or maybe even moreso - than it is to civility. If the bulk of teachers happened to be grammar gurus, we might have more attempts to keep the English language pure like French.

Like most proposed causes, focusing on civil literacy is arrogant in its narrowed perspective. Being able to name our government's 3 branches might be basic for your average news-addict, but not everyone follows politics daily; and the truth is unless you're directly tied to the government the number of federal branches is not important in most people's day-to-day preoccupations - an inference that is supported by the result (questionable in and of itself) that not many people know about these facts. Indeed, from a democratic perspective, the importance of such knowledge is measured by how widespread it is rather than by some scholars at an institution.

Arrogance is truly one of America’s greatest problems. I’m not referring selfishness or the like, but to blinding arrogance. It underlies the argument of authority. It’s a core piece of racial tensions when manifested as the inability to tolerate the different. It holds back science, manifested as the inability to question one own’s measurement and line of thought. It’s wasteful, manifested as the inability to consider alternative problem-solutions. And its petty, manifested in the cause of civic literacy.

Media (in order of appearance)

Photo: (1) Getting it done, 07/12/2005, by jamacdonald; grandmother's report card, 02/24/2008, by Victoria Bernal; "6 weeks of dedication" or "why I could never be a doctor", 10/08/2008, by Ben Golub; img_6154, 03/02/2008, by C.M.; (5) kids & computers, 01/13/2007, by shapeshift.

Upcoming ideas:
  • it's too easy to just be critical & point out what's wrong with the world
  • but still, it's easier to see when things go wrong than when things go right, & there's a good reason for that, b/c we have more to learn from when things go wrong than when they go right
  • "negative" news is more useful than "positive" news
  • specific implications for positive psychology, preventative medicine (if ain't broken...)
  • broader connections to the economy, evolution by means of natural selection
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