Sunday, November 23, 2008

Do Know Much About Civics

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.


ronny said...

Looks like Obackwards is getting REAL desperate!

This is the end of line for you libtards! LOL!

John Fulton said...

Not going to feed your troll...

Anyway, I took the test too, and missed 3, number 30 being one of them, and, you know, I didn't feel that great about doing that well. Makes me wonder what I'm not paying attention to when I have this much obscure 'factual' trivia taking up brain space.

Several questions were ideological rather than factual. There was one stating that lowering taxes and increasing spending is the correct response to a recession. Didn't Bush do that in his first term? And wasn't that response part of the present problem? How you cut taxes and how you spend what is left has got to be just as important as blindly following some principle of economic response to a recession.

I had to wonder what the company conducting the test gets out of spreading the message that people are idiots. What benefit is it to them to get this message out again? Is it some criticism of the schools or are they trying to make the point that most voters don't know enough about civics to be trusted? I know there's probably a significant minority that wants proof for that belief.

JSN said...

Stupidity is great for the ruling class. This is something I quote often from Francis Parkman's classic, Montcalm & Wolfe, concerning the French & Indian Wars (Montcalm and Wolfe were opposing commanders).

Berkeley was a Colonial Governor of Virginia in the 1730s. Before this, Massachusetts was depicted as the most militarized and pious of all Colonies.

"The great colony of Virginia stood in strong contrast to New England. In both the population was English; but the one was Puritan with Roundhead traditions, and the other, so far as concerned its governing class, Anglican with Cavalier traditions. In the one, every man, woman, and child could read and write; in the other, Sir William Berkeley once thanked God that there were no free schools, and no prospect of any for a century. The hope had found fruition. The lower classes of Virginia were as untaught as the warmest friend of popular ignorance could wish. New England had a native literature more than respectable under the circumstances, while Virginia had none; numerous industries, while Virginia was all agriculture, with but a single crop; a homogeneous society and a democratic spirit, while her rival was an aristocracy. Virginian society was distinctively stratified. On the lowest level were the negro slaves, nearly as numerous as all the rest together; next, the indented servants and the poor whites, of low origin, good-humored, but boisterous, and some times vicious; next, the small and despised class of tradesmen and mechanics; next, the farmers and lesser planters, who were mainly of good English stock, and who merged insensibly into the ruling class of the great landowners. It was these last who represented the colony and made the laws. They may be described as English country squires transplanted to a warm climate and turned slave-masters. They sustained their position by entails, and constantly undermined it by the reckless profusion which ruined them at last. Many of them were well born, with an immense pride of descent, increased by the habit of domination. Indolent and energetic by turns; rich in natural gifts and often poor in book-learning, though some, in the lack of good teaching at home, had been bred in the English universities; high-spirited, generous to a fault; keeping open house in their capacious mansions, among vast tobacco-fields and toiling negroes, and living in a rude pomp where the fashions of St. James were somewhat oddly grafted on the roughness of the plantation,--what they wanted in schooling was supplied by an education which books alone would have been impotent to give, the education which came with the possession and exercise of political power, and the sense of a position to maintain, joined to a bold spirit of independence and a patriotic attachment to the Old Dominion. They were few in number; they raced, gambled, drank, and swore; they did everything that in Puritan eyes was most reprehensible; and in the day of need they gave the United Colonies a body of statesmen and orators which had no equal on the continent. A vigorous aristocracy favors the growth of personal eminence, even in those who are not of it, but only near it."

JSN said...

Some of the questions were very, very dumb.

America was not founded on free markets. The colonists would tar and feather people who didn't buy American goods, and instead bought the "enemy" British goods.

We were founded against free markets, and, for more than 100 years during which time we became the greatest industrial power on Earth, we had the highest average tariffs in the industrialized world.

Read Ha-Joon Chang's "Bad Samaritans" or "Kicking Away the Ladder" for more.

It's a fact. These pollsters are evil.