There is probably no point whatsoever to a critique of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s civics literacy quiz (via 11d), but hope springs eternal, I guess.
First off, my generic criticisms of these kinds of historic or social-science literacy quizzes. Usually, they’re served up to the public with an inference that younger people are more ignorant about this information than they used to be in the past, but rarely if ever is there enough long-term data to even hint at whether that’s true or not. It’s possible that Americans or other national publics knew even less than they do today. Given that this is possible, it’s also natural to question whether or not we actually need to know any of this information, what the consequences of ignorance might be. Which tends to be a point that many quiz-givers of this kind gloss over, resting as they do on a generalized presumption that knowledge of history, politics, civics and so on must somehow be essential.
Reading ISI’s quiz 2008, I have a sense that they do have a vision of the outcomes, namely, that nestled among classic basic questions about American government are some “zingers” from which you can argue that some current policies exist only because a majority of the public is ignorant of the truth. For example, the question that correctly states that the phrase “a wall of separation between church and state” is found in Jefferson’s writings, not in the Constitution or other official documents. It’s pretty easy to see the jump from that question to a beloved contemporary conservative argument that church-state separation was not actually part of the Founders’ intention and that all they specified was that the federal government establish no official religion. (Another question on the quiz.) But surely then if we’re going to ask for literacy on this particular issue so that Americans can have an informed opinion, we’d want quiz questions about the history of Supreme Court interpretations of the establishment clause (especially the Fourteenth Amendment and incorporation), debates among the Founders themselves about the establishment clause, the connection to the free exercise clause, and so on. Or if you wanted a blandly neutral question, how about just a question about the language of the establishment clause? Even if you style yourself an “originalist” or “textualist”, you should have the honesty to concede that for much of the history of our courts and our society, Americans have favored other ways of interpreting our founding documents and ideas.
There’s a few other questions that strike me as having this kind of double-intent: technically true, but where the implication is misleading. There’s a question about the content of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech that’s clearly intended as a debunking “gotcha”, that King didn’t advocate any specific policy initiatives in the speech. Technically true, but considering that King himself made it very clear that he wasn’t just wishing abstractly that we could magically become racial brothers and instead argued that Americans needed to forcefully act to legally and politically secure racial equality, it’s at the least not a very good question, hardly the main civics lesson out of the civil rights movement as a whole.
Some of the economics questions on the quiz are also tendentious in this fashion. Say, that international trade most often leads to gains in a nation’s productivity. It’s not flatly untrue, but as a simple statement of fact that leaves a lot of crucial caveats and debates off to the side. It’s not in the same class as a question like, “What are the three branches of American government?”
If that’s the style of questioning, then there probably also need to be questions in a similar vein that figure prominently in arguments from the leftward side of the aisle. (I suspect the Susan B. Anthony and Roe v. Wade questions are prophylactically intended as such.) Or, you know, maybe just avoid this kind of question altogether in favor of strictly neutral ones.
It’s also interesting to look at which questions are most frequently answered correctly and incorrectly in the 2008 results. I think what I draw from some of those is not “Oh noes think of the children!!!!!” but “Lots of folks were wrong, but it’s kind of a trivial ‘gotcha’ question where I don’t think it matters much that the majority doesn’t get it right”.
For example, almost 3/4 of the respondents misidentify a phrase from the Gettysburg Address (I suspect most of those getting it wrong think it’s in the Preamble to the Constitution). It’s not unimportant that Lincoln said it when he said it: Garry Wills wrote a whole book arguing that the phrase and the speech were a bold realization of implicit, unkept promise embedded inside the Constitution. But neither are contemporary Americans wrong to misremember the phrase as lying within the Declaration or the Constitution: that’s sort of Wills’ point, that Lincoln discovered the idea to be always already present.
Another: over 80% got the subject of the Lincoln-Douglas debates wrong. Again I suspect many identified that the debates were about slavery, rather than whether slavery would be extended to new states. And again, I guess I wonder at the significance of getting that wrong, because the moral question of slavery was an undercurrent to those debates, to the Civil War, and to its aftermath. Unless you’re one of those who want to maintain that it was all about Northern aggression and states’ rights. Which is to say the least, a contentious interpretation, and hardly one that makes a person who holds to it “literate” in American history or civics. Quite the opposite.
This is precisely the kind of thing that pedagogy which favors interpretations, arguments, the complexity of things has tried, rightly, to move beyond: a sense that a concrete fact always outweighs a messier interpretative truth, or that the baseline fact is a necessary precondition of the interpretative questions. There’s nothing wrong with having a precise knowledge of the content of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, but I’m more concerned first that a student of American history and civics get a solid understanding of the historical role of slavery in the establishment and development of American government and society.
It all comes down to: what do people need to know, urgently, in order to participate meaningfully in American society without any presupposition of what they’ll do as participants? Then, secondarily, what ought they to know, what might affect their participation if they knew it? Then down the line somewhere, what would enrich or complicate their participation, and given them a more intricate sense of how the past is both different to and similar to the present, of the messy highways and byways by which certain common views and traditions have established themselves? I think very little of ISI’s quiz falls into the first or even second category unless you have a very strong fixed notion not just about the content of American civics but what the specific proper practice of it ought to be.