Liddick: Autumn’s angst
September 3, 2012
Hopefully, everyone had a good Labor Day – the holiday that draws a bright line under summer.
Labor Day heralds many things: the end of vacations, when the pop-ups and RVs are ushered to their winter quarters; the tents are aired out and tucked away and the backpacks are cleaned out and hung on their pegs in the garage. Days are a little cooler here in Summit County, and nights are crisper. Orion the Hunter rises earlier and earlier; by midnight it is already riding high in the night sky. Like your humble narrator, those who love Autumn put away their short-sleeved shirts and retrieve the long, together with sweaters, fleece and wool-blend pants. Some are already sharpening skis and considering new boots. Early September is a turning point.
While some revel, others shudder. Labor Day informally signals the beginning of the school year, and with it, the arrival of new evidence of the depressing state of knowledge among this nation’s students.
What knowledge is required to be a good citizen? A simple question, but the answer is not so easy. In 2006-8, the American Intercollegiate Institute administered a civics test to 14,000 college freshmen and seniors with multiple-choice questions drawn from the U.S. naturalization exam. The average score was under 54 percent. In an expanded test given to 2,500 adult Americans, the average score was 57 percent; horrific, but still higher than graduating college seniors.
Do you think that a college senior should be able to identify the three branches of the federal government? A majority couldn’t. How about correctly identifying the three things the Declaration of Independence says a government should protect, because they are natural rights? Only 42 percent got that one right. Can you name one right guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution? Most college seniors couldn’t. Do you think that the “wall of separation” between church and state is written into the Constitution? So do a large majority of college seniors – and they are wrong. The phrase first appears in one of Thomas Jefferson’s letters.
Do you think that US citizens should be able to properly define “capitalism” or “free enterprise?” I do too, but only about 42 percent could. The interesting thing is, when the same test was given to politicians, the score was 32 percent – which explains a lot. Similar results were seen in questions dealing with the results of foreign trade, defining “profit” (revenues minus expenses, it was that simple…) and who had the power to declare war. Chillingly, less than half the politicians tested could define a progressive tax, or even name the three branches of the federal government. I don’t know who these nitwits are, but I have my suspicions. And I believe their constituents would like to know as well.
One thing higher education seems to excel at is making students more liberal. The same series of studies found that college graduates, while not having more civic knowledge than their peers in the general population, were much more likely to believe that same-sex marriage is just fine, and that abortion should be available on demand at any point in a pregnancy. They were also much less likely to think that hard work and perseverance can result in success in our country or to believe that we are a model of freedom and justice in the world, and far likelier to think that America corrupts otherwise good people.
That last is a crucial tell. Civic literacy is directly related to attitudes about the United States and its government. As one’s civic literacy rises, one is much less likely to regard the nation’s founding documents as useless and outmoded, to think that capitalism produces many losers and few winners and that society is identical to government. One is also strongly inclined to think that prosperity is the product of entrepreneurs and free markets and that media is strongly biased in its coverage of political questions.
Taken as a whole, it’s clear from the above why the current president favors appearances on college campuses: simple rhetorical tricks and trinkets will sway an adulatory mob whose members have been taught that we are naught but evil abusers, for whose past misdeeds forgiveness must be begged. It’s clear but reprehensible, and corrosive. Attitudes like these, coupled with the ignorance the American Intercollegiate Institute’s surveys expose, are the acids that eat away the foundations of our society, and our culture.
As sturdy as they are, those foundations cannot stand this sort of ill treatment forever. And when they are gone, we will most fervently wish them back. But we will wish in vain.
Summit County resident Morgan Liddick pens a Tuesday column. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.