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 www.americancivicliteracy.org.)

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.

BEN BOYCHUK

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.

JOEL MATHIS

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 http://www.infinitemonkeysblog.com and http://politics.pwblogs.com/)