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The other deficit

Opinion | Ignorance of America's history and heritage endangers our government and threatens our way of life even more than terrorism

While Congress spends-and plans to spend-like the proverbial drunken sailor to "bailout" various industries for practices that are largely their fault and the fault of those in Congress who were supposed to provide oversight, another deficit looms that is at least as troubling as the economic one.

For the third straight year, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) has found that a large number of Americans cannot pass a basic 33-question civic literacy test on their country's history and institutions. The multiple-choice questions ask about the inalienable rights mentioned in the Declaration of Independence (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness), the name of Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1933 series of government programs (The New Deal), and the three branches of government (executive, legislative, judicial). No, I didn't peek at the answers. I received a good education.

The random sample of 2,508 American adults, ranging from those without high school diplomas, to people with advanced degrees, revealed a minimal difference in civic literacy between the uneducated and the highly educated. Fifty-six percent of those surveyed could identify Paula Abdul as one of the judges on "American Idol," but only 21 percent were able to recognize a phrase from Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. I had to memorize that speech in high school. What are they memorizing now?

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Not much of any use, it appears. Ignorance of America's history and heritage is a setup for politicians and others who want to manipulate us into a way of thinking that allows them to make decisions that are unconstitutional and unwise. More than repeating phrases and figures, knowledge of the past prepares us for a future based on unchanging principles. That's why knowledge matters and ignorance endangers our government and threatens our way of life even more than terrorism.

Civic illiteracy in the United States crosses all educational lines, including the vaunted Harvard where, according to the ISI survey, seniors scored 69.56 on the test, or a D-plus. And they were the best. The survey found that up to three-fourths of Americans believe teaching America's heritage is fundamental to a good education and to producing good citizens. So why is it not being done?

Part of it, I think, has to do with the continued embarrassment by the liberal education establishment over America and what it means to be an American. From their guilt about prosperity and our freedoms, to their opposition to "dead white males," college professors, especially since the '60s, have favored the trendy and quaint over the established and proven.

Remarkably, a college degree does not increase civic knowledge. According to the report, "The average score among those who ended their formal education with a bachelor's degree is 57 percent, or an 'F'. That is only 13 percentage points higher than the average score among those who ended their formal education with a high school diploma. Only 24 percent know that the First Amendment prohibits establishing an official religion for the United States." That's pretty basic information, isn't it? One might expect the Bill of Rights to be part of any class on government, even as early as elementary school.

Other findings: "Elected officials score lower than the general public," which tells us all we need to know about Washington. "Television-including TV news-Dumbs America Down," says ISI. In the midst of important hearings in Washington on the economy and a possible bailout for the big three automakers, one cable channel carried a story about a 44-year-old stripper who is suing for age discrimination.

ISI calls on everyone involved in education, including parents, to re-evaluate curricula and standards of accountability and to emphasize to students the fundamentals about our country. It notes Thomas Jefferson's admonition: "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free ... it expects what never was and never will be."

Read the report at www.isi.org and weep. And then demand of yourself and others that something be done to fix the intellectual deficit.
© 2008 Tribune Media Services Inc.

Cal Thomas
Cal Thomas

Cal, whose syndicated column appears on WORLD's website and in more than 500 newspapers, is a frequent contributor to WORLD's radio news magazine The World and Everything in It. Follow Cal on Twitter @CalThomas.

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