Test your knowledge of American civics and history

December 27, 2011 | By | 11 Replies More

I just finished taking this test of United States government civics and history.  I correctly answered 32 out of 33 questions, having guessed at a couple of them.  I believe that most of these questions are fairly worded and that they concern important topics of which American voters should be familiar.  I assume that I scored highly because I work as a lawyer, because I read quite a bit, and I actually lived through some of the events mentioned in the questions.  I would think that Americans who choose to vote should be able to answer more of these questions correctly than incorrectly. In fact, it is my opinion that people who do terribly (those who answer more incorrectly than correctly) should voluntarily refrain from voting in national elections because they lack a basic foundation of knowledge on which to base political decision-making.    Now consider this:

More than 2,500 randomly selected Americans took ISI’s basic 33 question test on civic literacy and 71% of them received an average score of 49% or an “F.” The quiz reveals that over twice as many people know Paula Abdul was a judge on American Idol than know that the phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people” comes from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

As discussed by the linked article, even significant numbers of elected officials who took this test displayed ignorance regarding basic topics. This is highly discouraging, of course (and see here).

It is difficult to argue that the People of this country should self-govern when so many of them are so ignorant of the basic information they need in order to cast meaningful votes.   It’s time to break the silence and to admit to each other that in order to self-govern, the citizens will need to be much more selective in how they spend their free time. They apparently need to be much more selective in what they view on TV and what they read (25% of Americans did not read any books last year).  Better education is the answer, but how can we educate the many millions of people who have already graduated from school?  How can we pry them, at least once in a while, from the addictive fare offered by the Entertainment Industries?

I would love to make all candidates currently running for President take a comparable test. I would suspect that at least several of them would fail even this simple multiple choice test.   Actually, I believe that Presidential candidates should be required to take a much more difficult and detailed test under supervised conditions to demonstrate whether they are well-versed in American politics and history.  Their scores should then be published (along with the questions and their answers) for voters to consider. 

These test results indicate that these are dangerous times for our country. It’s frustrations like these that lead me to advocate dramatic measures, such as passing a Constitutional Amendment to get money out of politics. Such an amendment would be a start, and only then might we have meaningful conversations about what needs to be done to fix the country. We cannot have such conversations while we have ignorant voters and corrupted politicians.  If we can’t depend on the People of this country and if we can depend on our elected officials, on whom can we depend?

Maybe, after passing a constitutional amendment to get money out of politics, we could have some chance to break up big banks and big media, we maybe then we could start weaning ourselves off of fossil fuels and we could start investing in better quality civics and history education for our children.

Or maybe my proposed first step is a pipe dream.    Based on many conversations I’ve been having with people I respect, I’m increasingly worried that we don’t have what it takes to pull out of our current nose dive.



Category: American Culture, Corporatocracy, Education, ignorance, Law, Political Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (11)

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  1. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    I scored 25 out of the 33, giving me a “C”. I pretty much missed every one I guessed at.

    Th scary part is how the elected official scored so low on the test. I recently had a chance encounter with with one of Tennessee’s legislators and after our brief conversation, my impression was that he wuold score quite low.

  2. Jim Razinha says:

    31 of 33 for me, though 5 or 6 were guesses, including the two misses. Concur with Niklaus…scary that elected officials scored low. 25% didn’t know who the Commander in Chief is? The survey results are disturbing, but unfortunately not surprising.

    Thanks for sharing this, Erich. I plan to reshare your FB share.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Yes, I have argued that anyone who could not answer half of these questions correctly should voluntarily refrain from voting in any national election. I was a bit hesitant to state this opinion in public last night, but I’m thinking more and more that it is justified and, in fact, it is what most people think about engaging in most potentially dangerous activities. People who don’t know the rules of the road shouldn’t drive and people who don’t understand most of the basic concepts upon which this country is established should voluntarily refrain from voting in national elections. It still makes me uncomfortable to say this. I realize that it runs counter to adage that “Everyone should vote.”

    In sum, people should make a vigorous effort to be informed regarding the issues and candidates on the ballot, and only then should they vote. To vote in a national election when you don’t know enough to answer half of these questions correctly is to act recklessly.

    • Jim Razinha says:

      Considering how many people confuse the inalienable rights of the Declaration with the actual founding governing document (also missing that the apparent grantor of those rights makes no appearance in the latter), understand little to nothing of what the Founders really crafted – yet want to take it back, don’t know that most of those corporations that don’t pay taxes aren’t really their friends needing protection, we’re in really good hands come November 2012.

  4. Mike M. says:

    Welcome to America- land of fat; collector of huddled confused masses; home to millions of adult-children looking to Papa God for moral guidance, Papa Government for the house rules, and Papa Media for what to think and say next. It’s never a feel good to realize that your thoughtful and fully researched vote, based on the issues, is essentially “cancelled out” by a dim-witted old lady from Nebraska who would vote for Romney because he’s handsome, or for Gingrich because of the American flag pin on his lapel and full head of white hair, or for Obama because he’s black, or for Palin because she has cute rimless glasses, or for Perry because he’s tall and talks with a twang just like dear old Uncle Oscar did. They’re out there, and they march dutifully to the polls every year. Really, how else can you possibly explain the election of two members of the Bush Crime Family, a goofy and puritanical B-actor named Ronnie Reagan, or a beady-eyed fascist monster like Nixon? Why do we keep putting these creeps and criminals into the White House? It’s been a long, greasy, downhill slide of incompetence and evil with no end in sight; a rolling presidential disaster that began in 1963 with the murder of Kennedy and continues its parade of fools straight into the Oval Office. Pfff…WTF.

  5. 30 out of 33. I must be slipping. The disturbing thing is to note the average among college educators was 55%.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      I’m not suggesting that everyone needs to score in the top echelon to be entitled to vote. Those of us who have reported our scores so far tend to read a lot regarding politics and history, among other things, and we have been thinking about and writing about these issues for years.

      When you get to the point where you don’t know how to guess correct answers to half of the questions, however, there is something seriously wrong. Even random guessing should get correct answers 25% of the time. Those who can’t get half of these questions right are not tuned in. Or maybe they don’t care, maybe they hate these topics, maybe they don’t have much mental firepower, maybe they are apathetic, maybe they have other priorities. These questions seemed to be reasonable ones to me. They don’t seem like “trivia,” like many multiple choice tests use. It seems to me that, whatever the reason, people who are guessing such that they get half of these answers wrong would be merely guessing in the voting booth.

      I write these words fully aware that “literacy tests” have been used to discriminate against voters in the past. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Literacy_test I’m not for mandating literacy tests.

      On the other hand, the founding fathers repeatedly wrote that the health of the democracy depended on the citizens being well-informed and willing to participate. That is increasingly hard to accomplish, given the poor state of the mass media. http://dangerousintersection.org/2007/01/16/assembling-democracy/

      I think it’s time to begin a “Don’t vote unless you are well-informed.” No more slogans that encourage everyone to vote, regardless of whether they are informed.

      Here are a few quotes that come to mind:

      “Americans are the best entertained and the least informed people in the world.”
      –Neil Postman, author, and from Amusing Ourselves to Death, Penguin Books, 1985

      “By far the most dangerous foe we have to fight is apathy – indifference from whatever cause, not from a lack of knowledge, but from carelessness, from absorption in other pursuits, from a contempt bred of self satisfaction” ~ William Osler (Canadian Physician, 1849-1919)

      The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment. ~ Robert M. Hutchins

      “Most Americans aren’t the sort of citizens the Founding Fathers expected; they are contented serfs. Far from being active critics of government, they assume that its might makes it right.” Joseph Sobran (1946- ) Columnist

      Many people claim that they have a right to vote, but I would disagree. They have a duty to keep themselves informed and only then to vote. The elephant in the room is what we should do about the fact that it is well documented that most of the adults in the United States are ill-informed about how their government works. Should we nonetheless encourage them to vote? I would say no. If you haven’t bothered to understand the issues, you shouldn’t be voting. How about this as a slogan: “Don’t vote unless you have first taken serious time to understand the issues, and this means much more than reading your local newspaper or watching your local “news.”

      More recently, Bill Moyers has written “The quality of democracy and the quality of journalism are deeply entwined.”

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    I’m often amazed at how many people in St. Louis admit that they cast votes for or against judges about whom they know nothing at all. They freely admit that their basis for voting is something like “It’s time to have more women judges” or “I voted for the one’s with Irish names” or “I voted to kick them all out.” They might as well flip a coin in the voting booth. Again, they are not ashamed to vote for people or issues of which they are uninformed.

    It’s time to ditch the “Get out the Vote” slogans and encourage people, instead, to become educated about the issues and candidates and, only if they do this, vote.

  7. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Mike M:
    You barely scratched the surface.
    Some people vote for the party candidate without knowing or caring about the candidate’s qualifications or stand on the issues.
    Some people vote for or against celebrity candidates based on the perceived beliefs of the candidates.
    Some people vote based on appearance, others vote for who that believe will be the winners. Only a few take the time to research the issues, and the candidates, vote for the candidate the feels is best qualified for the job.

    In the last midterm election, the city council seat for my district ended in a tie.there was a runoff and I voted again for the same candidate. I voted for her not because she was black, not because she was a woman, but because she seemed willing to personally talk to the constituents and not only voice her opinions on the issues, but to hear my ideas as well.
    All I could find out about her opponent was that he had worked for the government as a computer programmer. I was unable to find out where he stood on the issues. He won mainly due to his party affiliation.

  8. Erich Vieth says:

    Name a country beginning with a “U.” I know that you can make an entire country look stupid with some crafty editing, but I am constantly encountering Americans who I think of as amazingly uncurious about the world around them.

  9. Erich Vieth says:

    From The Nation:

    “The progressives of a century ago were right when they declared that the best way to cure the ills of democracy is with more democracy. And the best way to get more democracy is by reforming the electoral process, getting corporate cash out of politics, renewing journalism’s spirit of holding the powerful accountable and, above all, fighting to assure that every American can vote and that those votes will be counted.”


    I mostly agree with this set of guiding principles, but rather than say that “every American can vote,” I would say modify the above statement as follows:

    “The progressives of a century ago were right when they declared that the best way to cure the ills of democracy is with more democracy. And the best way to get more democracy is by reforming the electoral process, getting corporate cash out of politics, renewing journalism’s spirit of holding the powerful accountable and, above all, fighting to assure that every American stays well-informed regarding issues of the day, that only those who are well-informed be encouraged to vote, and that those votes will be counted.”

    Taking this position dovetails well with 1) The positions espoused by Robert McChesney and John Nichols, that the United States needs to re-characterize a vigorous news media as a public good substantially financed by the federal government; and 2) Diverting much of our warmongering budget to proudly support public education. Every school should have ample numbers of teachers and environments conducive to learning in order to produce students who become unrelenting self-teachers who know how to be skeptical about what they read and view.

    [See The Death and Life of American Journalism, by McChesney and Nichols. http://www.amazon.com/Death-Life-American-Journalism-Revolution/dp/B003R4ZC5Y/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1325790589&sr=8-1

    We can no longer afford to encourage people to vote without making sure that the voters are well-informed. Unless we change our ways, we will never get anything other than more clown-shows like the one we just saw in Iowa.

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