Are Americans ignorant about civics?

Congress opened a shiny, new visitor’s center on Dec. 2. The $621 million underground complex opened four years behind schedule and $400 million over budget — hardly extraordinary in Washington, D.C.

What is noteworthy is a last minute change to the center’s edifice: A cheap plaster plaque with the nation’s official motto "In God We Trust," now covers up "E Pluribus Unum." The defunct motto had been engraved in marble before anyone noticed the error.

Civic literacy, it seems, is in short supply in the halls of government. But not only there.

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a conservative non-profit group, surveyed 2,508 Americans about their knowledge of America’s founding principles, political history, international relations and the free market. More than 1,700 people — about 70 percent — failed the test. (Read the full report at

Are Americans dangerously ignorant about their civic institutions? Do we need a massive remedial course in what it means to be an American? Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, consider the possibilities.


It’s a cherished doctrine among educators that facts don’t matter. Knowing "how to think" is what counts. Such clichés have a way of dumbing down a citizenry, of making us complacent and stupid and vulnerable to the sweet nothings of politicians interested more in enhancing power than in expanding freedom.

Before you dismiss the ISI poll as just another right-wing scare job, it’s worth noting that the survey’s results are not much different from the conclusions of the National Assessment of Educational Progress reports on civics since the 1990s. The news about American civic literacy has been bad for a long time.

Fact is, American students do not grasp the basic principles of their government because those principles are not taught. Or if they are taught, they are degraded. That’s dangerous for a republic founded on certain ideas of rights, freedom and equality under the law.

America’s founders knew better than we the importance of a good civic education. They believed that government "by the people" could not survive if the people were ignorant or uninterested in how politics work.

Put bluntly, people who do not know what the Declaration of Independence says or who think that Congress shares foreign-policymaking powers with the United Nations are willing to believe just about anything.

The lesson of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute survey is that civic literacy is not a trivial pursuit. Freedom and self-government are habits. Habits are formed out of repetition. They must be learned. Let’s teach them.


The results of the ISI survey raise a pretty nasty chicken-and-egg conundrum: Is America drifting away from its founding principles because we don’t know enough about our history? Or do we not know enough about America’s founding principles because of the drift?

According to the survey, only 53 percent of Americans — and, shockingly, just 45 percent of elected officials — know that Congress has the power to declare war. But absent a textbook, why would Americans know that? Congress hasn’t declared war since 1941; since then America has fought major conflicts in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. And the Bush Administration has aggressively argued that there are no limits on his ability to make war where and how he chooses. Given the reality of American governance, Americans’ confusion might be understandable.

Or maybe not. In his recent book, "The Limits of Power," conservative historian Andrew Bacevich takes stock of the cultural, political and military challenges facing America, concluding that citizens cannot merely rely on their leaders — not even a popular new president — to provide the answers. "Soldiers cannot accomplish these tasks, nor should we expect politicians to do so," Bacevich writes. "The onus of responsibility falls squarely on citizens."

To claim that responsibility, though, Americans must better understand our history and institutions. The time to start learning is now.

(Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis blog daily at and


  1. Thomas Bonsell

    This test has little to do with civics in America and shows me that those who think themselves “experts” on America don’t know what they think they know.


    Question no. 6 asks:

    The Bill of Rights explicitly prohibits:

    A. prayer in public school

    B. discrimination based on race, sex, or religion

    C. the ownership of guns by private individuals

    D. establishing an official religion for the United States

    E. the president from vetoing a line item in a spending bill

    We all know that the test expects the correct answer to be D. But that would be a misreading of the First. It doesn’t use the word “establishment” as a verb as this quiz does; “establishment” is a noun meaning something established. Established by religion, including religion itself. Since prayer was established by religion it is “an establishment of religion” and is therefore also prohibited by the First.

    Of course only Congress can “declare” war, but the Constitution says nothing about what form that “declaration” must come in. The Constitution doesn’t say that Congress must use the words “declare” or “declaration.” So a declaration can come in many forms. The authorization George W. Bush got to use military action against Iraq can be a valid “declaration of war” because the Constitution doesn’t specify what words or form the declaration” must use.

    One author wrote that “Congress hasn’t declared war since 1941; since then America has fought major conflicts in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq.”

    So what? We went to war in Korea because of a treaty with the United Nations. We went to war in Vietnam because of a treaty with the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization and we went into the Balkans because of a treaty with NATO. Treaties are “the supreme law of the land” alongside the Constitution and federal law (Article VI) so there was a tacit declaration for war through the treaties. This issue has never been addressed head on. The only thing we have to go on is a Supreme Court case Missouri v. Holland from the 1920s in which it was held that a treaty protecting migratory birds from Canada flying over US territory could be protected by the federal government and supplant Missouri’s power to regulate hunting even though the US has no power over hunting. There is no constitutional limitation on subject matter when it comes to treaty making, so a treaty authorizing military action is just as valid as is a formal declaration of war.

    When I studied constitutional law at Georgetown University Graduate School of Government a professor asked why I had left a job as a sportswriter in Portland, Oregon, to study political science in DC. I told her I didn’t want to spend my life writing about grown men playing children’s games and wanted to get into something important such as political reporting or editorial-page work and thought studying the Constitution would be valuable because I felt journalists doing such jobs didn’t know what they were talking about. She replied, “I know they don’t know what there are talking about.”
    And she read the Washington Post and New York Times daily. so if those two beacons of journalistic knowledge don’t know what chance is there that others would know, including designers of this test?

  2. benboychuk

    Mr. Bonsell, your objection appears to be more with ISI and Joel Mathis than with me. But since you seem to lump me in with your general critique, I’ll at least reply to the first part of it.

    You’re over thinking this. The give-away in question six is “explicitly.” Since the word prayer appears nowhere in the Bill of Rights, but establish does, the answer is obviously D. My guess is the question was written that way to eliminate confusion and preempt objections such as yours.

    You are also glossing over the political reality of 1789. You surely know that the First Amendment barred Congress from establishing an official religion, but that prohibition did not extend to the states. The fight over school prayer is as much about the 14th Amendment and the doctrine of incorporation as it is an argument over the proper understanding of the Establishment Clause.

    Otherwise, I agree with much of what you write here. Thank you for reading.