Pondering the ‘How Dumb Are We?’ question

PONDERING THE ‘HOW DUMB ARE WE?’ QUESTION…. Newsweek is the latest major outlet to poll Americans on some basics of American history and civics. As the headline suggests — “How dumb are we?” — the public didn’t do especially well when tested. (thanks to R.K. for the tip)

They’re the sort of scores that drive high-school history teachers to drink. When NEWSWEEK recently asked 1,000 U.S. citizens to take America’s official citizenship test, 29 percent couldn’t name the vice president. Seventy-three percent couldn’t correctly say why we fought the Cold War. Forty-four percent were unable to define the Bill of Rights. And 6 percent couldn’t even circle Independence Day on a calendar.

Going through the results, some of Newsweek‘s findings were more discouraging than others. An overwhelming majority, for example, can’t name one of the writers of the Federalist Papers, but that’s hardly surprising. Similar numbers don’t know how many U.S. House members there are, who was president during World War I, or the precise number of amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

All things considered, though, these results don’t strike me as especially outrageous, and even the questions don’t seem especially relevant. I’m generally far more concerned about what Americans know about current events than historical events, though regrettably, we didn’t do too well on these questions, either.

But the point here is not to just laugh at an uninformed electorate. Rather, the point is that this ignorance matters. Newsweek‘s report added that the world is “becoming more and more inhospitable to incurious know-nothings — like us.”

For more than two centuries, Americans have gotten away with not knowing much about the world around them. But times have changed — and they’ve changed in ways that make civic ignorance a big problem going forward. While isolationism is fine in an isolated society, we can no longer afford to mind our own business. What happens in China and India (or at a Japanese nuclear plant) affects the autoworker in Detroit; what happens in the statehouse and the White House affects the competition in China and India. Before the Internet, brawn was enough; now the information economy demands brains instead. And where we once relied on political institutions (like organized labor) to school the middle classes and give them leverage, we now have nothing. “The issue isn’t that people in the past knew a lot more and know less now,” says [Jacob] Hacker. “It’s that their ignorance was counterbalanced by denser political organizations.”

And with that ignorance comes consequences, as uninformed and easily-fooled voters have a severely limited working understanding of current events, but at the same time, have enormous power over the nation’s future.

The standard response is that people are busy, and I get that. But as Isaac Chotiner persuasively argued a while back, “[W]hen you live in a democracy, there are very few good excuses for not having minimal knowledge about what is going on in the world. How much newspaper reading would it have taken to realize that between 1992 and 1996 the deficit decreased? Or to realize that Saddam did not have a hand in 9/11? Now ask yourself how much time the average American spends watching mediocre television. Voters can choose to be ignorant or disinterested, but that choice is fundamentally their own.”

The problem goes beyond voters rewarding the wrong candidates or parties; ignorance undermines the entire process. When voters are ignorant, candidates are more likely to lie, confident in their ability to get away with it. When the electorate is disengaged, policymakers feel less pressure to exercise good judgment, knowing they can just pull the wool over the public’s eyes later.

I’m obviously engaged in politics, and if you’re reading this, you are too. Not everyone shares our interests, and that’s fine. But many Americans make time for the things they find important. They spent time watching sports, or keeping up on celebrities, or whatever. And while it would be the height of arrogance to suggest the public change its leisure habits, our political system — and the country overall — relies on a certain level of sophistication among the public, and there’s ample evidence that we’re just not at that level.

In human history, it’s never been easier to get — and stay — well informed. Folks just have to take some responsibility.