Wednesday, November 26, 2008

An idiotic civics test

Kathleen Parker, a conservative columnist, writes in the WaPo about one of those civics test that occasionally demonstrate just how stupid the American public is.

O ut of 2,500 American quiz-takers, including college students, elected officials and other randomly selected citizens, nearly 1,800 flunked a 33-question test on basic civics. In fact, elected officials scored slightly lower than the general public with an average score of 44 percent compared to 49 percent.

Only 0.8 percent of all test-takers scored an "A."
I took this test a few days ago, and got 31 out of 33 right, so I guess I am part of the 0.8%. Parker doesn't provide a link, but I googled it, and retook it - this time I got 100% (I remembered the correct answers the two that I got wrong the first time).

Parker goes on to bemoan the lack of intellectual curiosity of the average American (Parker is one of the few conservatives who have criticized Sarah Palin, which has gotten her in trouble with fellow conservatives), and proposes some solutions, including forcing high school and college students to read newspapers. Good luck with that.

I have a better solution: let's all completely ignore idiotic tests that do nothing except make us feel bad about ourselves. This test is not a worthwhile examination of a person's understanding of American democracy. Some of the questions have nothing whatsoever to do with America, and some are so obscure that only people with a well-above-average interest in history or politics even have a chance of getting them right. Try this one:

13) Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas would concur that:
A. all moral and political truth is relative to one’s time and place
B. moral ideas are best explained as material accidents or byproducts of evolution
C. values originating in one’s conscience cannot be judged by others
D. Christianity is the only true religion and should rule the state
E. certain permanent moral and political truths are accessible to human reason
"D" is a trick answer: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, all lived in ancient Athens, a good 300 years before the birth of Christ; they could not have been Christians. "Evolution," as in what we learned from Darwin, was also an idea formulated in an era somewhat past their time. I have a degree in philosophy and I had to think hard about the answer, and took an educated guess. The correct answer is "E." I don't associate "E" particularly strongly with any of those four philosophers, and I've read several Platonic dialogues. In other words, very well-educated, politically aware and sophisticated people could easily get that wrong. It's absurd to claim that average Americans are not politically aware because they got that question wrong.

There's a very subtle hidden agenda at work here. "A" and "C" are clearly statements of moral relativity. "E" does not say anything about moral absolutes, but it forces you to define these four philosophers in a way that specifically DOES NOT associate them with moral relativism. At the end of the test, there are several questions about how to define capitalism, which strongly suggests that the writers of this test designed it to put conservative, "traditional" values in a positive light. There's nothing wrong with that, except that they're not upfront about it.

Or consider this question, which is about American history, but is very obscure:

11) What impact did the Anti-Federalists have on the United States Constitution?
A. their arguments helped lead to the adoption of the Bill of Rights
B. their arguments helped lead to the abolition of the slave trade
C. their influence ensured that the federal government would maintain a standing army
D. their influence ensured that the federal government would have the power to tax
I've lived in Washington, DC, and have been an avid student of politics and American history for decades, and I had to take an educated guess on this one. I guessed "A," because the term "Anti-Federalists" suggest people skeptical about the power of the federal government, and part of the purpose of the Bill of Rights is to constrain the power of the government (the First Amendment being a prime example). But I couldn't name a specific "Anti-Federalist" off the top of my head if you paid me. The question implies that they had an impact on the Constitution when it was being written, which also leads me to the Bill of Rights. But, again, it's a tricky question, and not being able to answer it correctly says essentially nothing about a person's knowledge of American politics or history. You would have to have specifically studied this one group in one era of American history to know this well. I haven't done that, and I have an excellent education.

And then, some of the questions are open to interpretation:

29) A flood-control levee (or National Defense) is considered a public good because:
A. citizens value it as much as bread and medicine
B. a resident can benefit from it without directly paying for it
C. government construction contracts increase employment
D. insurance companies cannot afford to replace all houses after a flood
E. government pays for its construction, not citizens
The correct answer is "B." I got this wrong the first time (I think I chose "D"), but just about any of those answers could be considered valid. A member of a construction workers' union would probably choose "C," and who could blame her? And isn't "D" technically correct? If I were the CEO of an insurance company, that would probably be my answer.

Finally, some of the questions touch on important topics, but do so in a trivial way:

15) The phrase that in America there should be a “wall of separation” between church and state appears in:
A. George Washington’s Farewell Address
B. the Mayflower Compact
C. the Constitution
D. the Declaration of Independence
E. Thomas Jefferson’s letters
Separation of church and state is a fundamental American democratic value, but the fact that the specific phrase "wall of separation" is found in Thomas Jefferson's letters ("D") is a piece of trivia. Again, I had to take an educated guess, and used the process of elimination: I doubt George Washington talked much about the separation of church and state. It probably wouldn't have been an issue in the Mayflower Compact, because that was a small group of people from the same religion; the issue comes up once in the Constitution, in the First Amendment, which doesn't use that phrase; and I've never read it in the Declaration of Independence, which was about justifying the separation of the colonies from England. And I know that Jefferson was particularly proud of his efforts to advance the cause of religious freedom. But knowing the origin of that specific phrase signifies nothing about whether or not a person understands the significance of the idea of separation of church and state in American history and politics.

I could go on. There are a number of questions that are, in fact, perfectly legitimate, simple questions that, I agree, Americans should know.

3) What are the three branches of government?
A. executive, legislative, judicial
B. executive, legislative, military
C. bureaucratic, military, industry
D. federal, state, local
That one everybody should get. But without seeing any results, we don't know how many people did, in fact, get that one right. It's possible that 99% of the people who took this test got that question right. I have no idea. So I am not going to worry about it.

This test is garbage. If it were a test designed to test students of a particular course, it might be worthwhile. But it asks questions that highly educated people could easily get wrong for perfectly valid reasons. The fact that there are journalists out there who use this test to complain about the political and historical literacy of the American public says more about those journalists' lack of critical faculties than it does about the American educational system.

1 comment:

ITF said...

You answered 31 out of 33 correctly — 93.94 %

And I agree, the test is highly opionated. I disagree with some of their "right" answers.