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Civic Illiteracy: A Threat to the American Dream

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Immigrants desiring American citizenship must pass a naturalization test demonstrating basic civic literacy. 97.5 percent of immigrants pass this test.

Xavier University's Center for the Study of the American Dream undertook a survey to learn details of the civic literacy rate of native-born Americans measured identically by the same test. Our work over the last three years has consistently reinforced the strong American belief in the relationship between the American Dream and freedom. Freedom is not found in the state of nature, and must be fought for and vigilantly guarded. In order to do this successfully, Americans are expected to know what freedom means beyond sloganeering and applause lines. This includes understanding the nature of the freedoms won by those who have gone before us and the obligations freedom demands of us to ensure its continuance and to protect those who will follow us.

In order to do this, we must first understand what those freedoms are.

It is our strong contention that civic illiteracy is a threat to the American Dream because it is a threat to the freedom we treasure. Civic illiteracy makes us less likely to exercise freedom by understanding and engaging in our public life. Failure to achieve and maintain this understanding inevitably makes us more susceptible to manipulation and abuses of power. If we do participate with limited knowledge of what makes America, America, we mock the history we revere.

Concurrent to our national civic literacy survey, the Center for the Study of the American Dream asked native-born U.S. citizens: "Immigrants are expected to pass a civic literacy test. Do you think all Americans should be able to pass that test?" A strong majority, 77 percent, said, yes. Furthermore, 60 percent agreed that high school students should have to pass the naturalization test as a requirement for graduation.

However, our national survey revealed that one in three native-born citizens failed the civic literacy test, based on the INS passing score of 6 out of 10 correct answers. This pass rate is 32 percent less than the average immigrant passing rate. In and of itself, these numbers don't appear alarming because we have heard them before. However, our persistence in civic unawareness is no comfort simply because it is consistent. There is no honorable connection between civic illiteracy and resistance to and distrust of government authority. Quite the contrary.

If the passing score for native-born Americans was raised to 70 percent from 60 percent -- seven correct answers out of ten -- the failure rate would climb to 50 percent -- one in two.

Understanding the true nature of our national civic literacy requires more than averaging scores alone. For example, if we were trying to gauge the average U.S. household net worth and we asked 1,000 Americans and one of them happened to be Bill Gates, the consequent skew would be grossly misleading. Similarly, in the civic literacy test, college graduates performed best with an 82 percent average pass rate -- still 15 percent less than the immigrant pass rate. However, high school grads or less performed poorly with a 44 percent pass rate -- 53 percent less than the immigrant pass rate. Less than 1/3rd of Americans graduate from college but their impact on the civic literacy test skews the picture.

However, the central issue at hand is not sensationalizing who passed and who failed, but more a demonstration of what vote-eligible Americans specifically know and do not know in the midst of an important presidential election, after 12-18 years of school and 24/7 exposure to unfiltered multi-media information sources.

Americans do well with elementary school level questions such as: "What is the name of the President of the United States?", "What is the capital of the United States?", "Where is the Statue of Liberty?", "Who was the first President?", "When do we celebrate Independence Day?", and "What are the two major political parties in the United States?". No doubt, these answers might easily be offered by people around the world.

However, of greater material importance are questions about the U.S. Constitution, legal and political structures of the American constitutional republic, and basic facts related to current political life and key political decision-makers. For example:

* 85 percent did not know the meaning of the "the rule of law."
* 82 percent could not name "two rights stated in the Declaration of Independence."
* 77 percent could not identify "one power of the states under the Constitution."
* 75 percent were not able to correctly answer "What does the judiciary branch do?"
* 71 percent were unable to identify the Constitution as the "supreme law of the land."
* 63 percent could not name one of their two U.S. Senators.
* 62 percent could not identify "What happened at the Constitutional Convention?"
* 62 percent did not know who the Governor of their state is.
* 62 percent could not answer "the name of the Speaker of the U.S. House."

The effects of civic illiteracy take their toll over time, and while Americans are almost defiantly indifferent about their lack of civic understanding, the consequences to our basic rights and freedoms and the general health of our republic could be dire. The American Dream, which requires the rule of law and civic understanding to protect the freedoms and opportunities we value, could be deeply damaged.

When Ben Franklin left Independence Hall after the Constitution was finally produced after much deliberation and amidst much contention (in 1787 -- a question answered incorrectly by 91% of native-born Americans), he was asked by a woman waiting outside to learn what the fate of her new country would be.

"What do we have, Mr. Franklin?"
"A Republic, Madam, if we can keep it."

It is tempting to blame the schools for our low civic literacy scores but schools can only lead us to water. They cannot make us drink nor remember where the water is. It is an individual responsibility.

After all, Mr. Franklin did not say: "A Republic Madam, if the school system can keep it."