I am a civics genius. That's right, folks. I just took this civics exam that a news article said 71% of those surveyed "failed," and guess what: I got every one of the questions right. That's right. I got a 100%. And apparently, the average score was 49%, which would make me a total genius; at least by comparison.
And of course, the purpose of this test was to show that our education system sucks and we're all morons. Hell, the mast at the top of the page sums it up: OUR FADING HERITAGE Americans Fail a Basic Test on Their History and Institutions. This was yet another of those "We're all going to hell in a handbasket" studies that show how much dumber we are than previous generations were. And dollars to donuts, you can bet these same types were telling the previous generations the same damn thing. No matter how bad things used to be, you'll always find somebody to tell you that it's much worse now.
And after taking the test, one thing struck me: The page showing my score showed that the average grade of those taking the test online was a 77.8%. But how likely is that? I mean, it makes sense that people who voluntarily take the test online would be smarter than those selected randomly; but that's a HUGE difference. How could a test score go up by almost 29 points?
Devil's in the Details
And then I looked at the methodology. First off, the online test was only 33 questions, while the real test was 118 questions. But more importantly, this survey was done over the phone. That's right, they made over two thousand people take a 118 question multiple-choice exam over the telephone, and then act surprised that people did poorly. And trust me, some of these questions were difficult and required me to read the choices many times before I felt good about the answer. And a few of them were totally bogus and I just took best guesses at what they wanted. And they expected people to do well on this over the phone?
But of course they didn't. They wanted people to fail. The whole purpose of the exam was so that they could announce that Americans are stupid and that our heritage is fading. That was it. And they made sure to throw in some easy ones, so they could pretend that these were basic questions. But let's look at one of the harder ones:
27) Free markets typically secure more economic prosperity than government’s centralized planning because:
30) Which of the following fiscal policy combinations would a government most likely follow to stimulate economic activity when the economy is in a severe recession?
31) International trade and specialization most often lead to which of the following?
And remember, these are being asked over a long phone conversation with someone who realized they had gotten in deeper than they had planned. And for what? Why should these people, after they've already answered 50 questions, continue to give all their effort to answering this correctly? Is there any doubt the score would have gone up if there was a prize on the line? Of course it would have. This exam didn't test people's civics experience. It was a test of their mental endurance.
And hell, I know a few conservatives who definitely would have gotten the "severe recession" question wrong, because they don't believe in deficit spending. Sure, they're ignorant, but it's only because they've been misled, not because they're not paying attention.
Details v. Concepts
And this kind of crap just bugs the hell out of me. Should people know more than they do about civics and history? Sure. But doing a telephone survey of 118 questions isn't the way to prove it. Remember, the average score for people taking the shorter test online was 77.8%, compared with 49% with the long test over the phone. This didn't test anything except for this group's desire to make us feel stupid.
Hell, the only reason I knew some of those answers is just because I spend so much time debating online and it's stuff that just comes up. But this isn't required knowledge or make me a better citizen. And hell, gauging civics intelligence upon events like the Cuban Missile Crisis is always going to lead to "fading" knowledge, as that was once a current event to people. And frankly, despite the scariness of the situation, I'm not exactly sure how it relates to important civics lessons. People knew it as a current event, not a historical event. The fate of the world was at risk, but it wasn't a Magna Carte level event. The lesson to be learned from it was minor.
Nor do I see why it's important to recognize specific quotes from the Gettsyburg Address or The Declaration of Independence. This wasn't a test for civics as much as it was a specific knowledge test. And while I have no doubts that many of the conservatives I debate with would do well on these questions, I completely doubt their ability to comprehend any of it. Does it really matter which of our rights come from the Bill of Rights, rather than from later amendments? Or does it really matter if you knew whether freedom of religion was in the first or second amendment? I think not. What matters is if people have an idea of why we need these rights; not the order they came in. And I suspect that people have a better understanding of the fuzzy concepts behind our system of government than the specifics that this exam tested.
And that's the bigger point. History shouldn't even be about specific quotes or incidents, but rather a conceptual understanding of why these things happened as a way of informing us of where things might be going. After all, there will only be one Declaration of Independence, but there will always be a need for understanding why it was written. This test didn't begin to test on that knowledge. Americans didn't fail the test; the test failed them.