Are American Kids Terminally Stupid? Let’s Find Out!

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Over at Foreign Policy, Max Boot writes one of my favorite evergreen columns:

In struggling for some explanation for the inexplicable events of this election season — in particular, the fact that someone as unqualified and ignorant as Donald Trump is as close as he is to the most powerful post in the world — I keep coming back to a conversation that a friend had with her trainer at a posh gym in Manhattan.

[SPOILER ALERT! It turns out the trainer didn’t know much civics.]

For years, I’ve been more sanguine than most about the state of the American education system….I now realize that I was being Pollyannaish…. two thirds of high school seniors were unable to identify the 50-year period in which the Civil War was fought…World War I… three branches of government… Gettysburg address… One third of the respondents couldn’t name the vice president and half didn’t know that the first 10 amendments to the Constitution are called the Bill of Rights. Only one third knew that the Constitution is considered the nation’s highest law.

Et cetera.

Are kids these days really so woefully ignorant? Maybe! Are they any more woefully ignorant than their elders were back when America was a world powerhouse standing up against global communism? Let’s go to the tape:

  • The demographic most likely to support Trump is the elderly, who learned their civics 50 years ago. The demographic least likely to support Trump is recent grads.
  • The most detailed recent survey of civics knowledge, What Americans Know about Politics and Why It Matters, covering the postwar era through 1997, concluded that “citizens appear no more or less informed today than half a century ago.”
  • A few years later, in a review of the same subject, political scientist William Galston came to the same conclusion: “There is no evidence that overall levels of civic knowledge have altered much over time.” (In fairness, Galston also calls this “remarkable” since education levels have increased substantially over the past half century.)
  • The NAEP has conducted a national civics test since 1988. The results have been basically the same the entire time.

Put this all together, and it suggests that knowledge of civics and history has remained about the same from the end of World War II to the present day. Now, it may well be that this level of knowledge is inadequate. I’ll leave that judgment to others. But all the evidence points in the same direction: the average American has always had a pretty meager understanding of civics and American history; nothing much has changed in recent years; and this has had no noticeable effect on the quality of presidents we elect.

This makes perfect sense, too. Does anyone truly think that Trump is doing well because his supporters don’t understand how the filibuster works? Or the way that Marbury v. Madison originated the concept of judicial review? Of course not. They like him because he’s going to build a wall, he’s suspicious of Muslims, and he doesn’t like political correctness. We could have an elected one-man dictatorship in America and none of that would change.

Bottom line: Stop griping about how ignorant the young ‘uns are these days unless you’ve got some real evidence to back it up. The Greatest Generation may have been great,1 but they didn’t know any more about civics than your average Bernie fan.

1I will, again, leave this judgment to others.


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