According to Newsweek, when the magazine asked 1,000 U.S. citizens to take America’s official citizenship test in early 2011, 29 percent "couldn’t name the vice president. Seventy-three percent couldn’t correctly say why we fought the Cold War. Forty-four percent were unable to define the Bill of Rights. And 6 percent couldn’t even circle Independence Day on a calendar. For as long as they’ve existed, Americans have been misunderstanding checks and balances and misidentifying their senators." The magazine's analysis treats all of the questions as equally important. However, I contend that the lack of knowledge on matters such as governmental checks and balances is more problematic than whether a citizen knows the name of his or her U.S. Senator. To take another pair, only 20 percent could name the U.S. President during World War I, while roughly the same percentage could name one of the enumerated powers of the federal government. The second lapse is more serious, for if the electorates do not know the constitutional limits placed on the power of the U.S. Government, the founders' assumption that elections would correct for any encroachment can no longer be relied on in the absense of other checks on the federal government. Given the continued growth in the power of the federal government relative to the state governments during the twentieth century, it could be that the voters are the last remaining wall in the way of complete political consolidation. However, if only one fifth of American citizens know what the federal constitution enumerates for the U.S. Government, how can a majority determine whether that government has overstepped its constitutional authority? Lest we leave this matter up to the U.S. Supreme Court, we might want to be reminded of the institutional/governmental conflict of interest in a branch of one of the governments in federalism contest being the umpire. Ordinarily, one could point to the constitutional amendment process superseding the high court's decisions, but this process involves representatives elected by the citizens, and most of us haven't bothered to study our own federal constitution.
As another example of some ignorance being more harmful than others, Newsweek reports that "(a) 2010 World Public Opinion survey found that Americans want to tackle deficits by cutting foreign aid from what they believe is the current level (27 percent of the budget) to a more prudent 13 percent. The real number is under 1 percent." This ignorance could well mean the demise of the United States, for a $14 or $15 trillion debt held by the federal government alone (Illinois, California, Nevada and Florida having sizable sovereign debts of their own) may well be unsustainable. It is conceivable that American electorates will elect representatives who will placate them by cutting waste to "make a dent" in the deficit (which is the annual increase in the debt), as if that would deal with the problem.
In general terms, the American founding fathers believed that for a republic to endure, its citizens must be virtuous and knowledgeable concerning the republic and the issues of the day. Public education was thus viewed as having a civic as well a vocational and academic function. Hence, American college students typically get an undergraduate degree in the Liberal Arts or Sciences before moving laterally over to a law or medical school for its undergraduate (i.e., first) degree (i.e., the J.D. and M.D.). The E.U.'s states do not require such a broad education at the college level, though their pre-college education is said to be more rigorous than in the American states. In fact, even in making this comparison, even educated Americans suffer from ignorance, as we tend to mistake political categories, such as in likening the U.S. to one of the E.U.'s states rather than to the E.U. Anyone want to guess how many American citizens know of the E.U. at all? I would put the figure at 5 percent, but this could be overly optimistic. To see the category mistake in action among the "best and brightest" in this land of isolationism, consider the following argument presented in Newsweek.
"Most experts agree that the relative complexity of the U.S. political system makes it hard for Americans to keep up. In many European countries, parliaments have proportional representation, and the majority party rules without having to 'share power with a lot of subnational governments,' notes Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker . . . In contrast, we’re saddled with a nonproportional Senate; a tangle of state, local, and federal bureaucracies; and near-constant elections for every imaginable office (judge, sheriff, school-board member, and so on). 'Nobody is competent to understand it all, which you realize every time you vote,' says Michael Schudson . . . 'You know you’re going to come up short, and that discourages you from learning more.' While at Yale, I took a seminar on the politics of American education in the political science department. I don't know if Hacker was on the faculty then, but his ignorance in comparing the U.S. and E.U. is startling. I suspect that he is simply stuck in an old paradigm traditionally used in trans-Atlantic comparitive politics. I contend that the E.U. is just as complex politically as are the U.S. For example, in terms of education alone, just as the American states must deal with local school boards, so too must the European states. Furthermore, just as the American states must deal with federal regulation, so too must the European states. Indeed, the E.U.'s executive branch, the European Commission, has been actively involved in education policy in standardizing the various degrees offered by various state universities. While it is true that some of the E.U.'s states have regional governments that are also involved in education policy, whereas the American states only have counties and localities, the differential amount of complexity is not significant as compared with the basic union-state-locality structure that characterizes both the E.U. and U.S. Newsweek reports that European citizens tend to do significantly better than Americans on citizen questions; the reason is not because the U.S. is somehow more complex. Rather, I would point to the relatively lax schooling in the U.S. and the attitude of American parents (and students) toward academics, self-discipline and homework. Anti-intellectualism thrives amid such disvalues.
In the end, the American plight is one of values, and this transcends love of money and even knowledge. The ignorance reported by Newsweek is kein Zufall (no accident), and it will continue unless knowledge stands up not only to power and money, but also to conceit and the ignorance itself to break the cycle of "I can't be wrong." Ignorance presuming itself as impossibly wrong! This is the tragedy of the American dream--of modernity as having "made it." Of course, we have no need of the classics; they have nothing to teach us! We are the highpoint of human civilization, standing here among our sophisticated technology in the twenty-first century. We are like the Arian Christians who said more than a millennium ago that they could save themselves, as though they were gods on earth. Augustine sought to hammer humility into them by (overstating) the depravity of the fall in creation and mankind. The question for us is perhaps how a crack in arrogance can be found such that ignorance may finally be made uncomfortable in its own presence. Modernity is too comfortable with itself--too convenient wallowing in its own ignorance, which too many American citizens portray as knowledge. A bad smell! Sadly, we have grown so accustomed to it that we can no longer smell it, so we presume it no longer exists. We presume.
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