Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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March 21, 2011

PONDERING THE 'HOW DUMB ARE WE?' QUESTION.... Newsweek is the latest major outlet to poll Americans on some basics of American history and civics. As the headline suggests -- "How dumb are we?" -- the public didn't do especially well when tested. (thanks to R.K. for the tip)

They're the sort of scores that drive high-school history teachers to drink. When NEWSWEEK recently asked 1,000 U.S. citizens to take America's official citizenship test, 29 percent couldn't name the vice president. Seventy-three percent couldn't correctly say why we fought the Cold War. Forty-four percent were unable to define the Bill of Rights. And 6 percent couldn't even circle Independence Day on a calendar.

Going through the results, some of Newsweek's findings were more discouraging than others. An overwhelming majority, for example, can't name one of the writers of the Federalist Papers, but that's hardly surprising. Similar numbers don't know how many U.S. House members there are, who was president during World War I, or the precise number of amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

All things considered, though, these results don't strike me as especially outrageous, and even the questions don't seem especially relevant. I'm generally far more concerned about what Americans know about current events than historical events, though regrettably, we didn't do too well on these questions, either.

But the point here is not to just laugh at an uninformed electorate. Rather, the point is that this ignorance matters. Newsweek's report added that the world is "becoming more and more inhospitable to incurious know-nothings -- like us."

For more than two centuries, Americans have gotten away with not knowing much about the world around them. But times have changed -- and they've changed in ways that make civic ignorance a big problem going forward. While isolationism is fine in an isolated society, we can no longer afford to mind our own business. What happens in China and India (or at a Japanese nuclear plant) affects the autoworker in Detroit; what happens in the statehouse and the White House affects the competition in China and India. Before the Internet, brawn was enough; now the information economy demands brains instead. And where we once relied on political institutions (like organized labor) to school the middle classes and give them leverage, we now have nothing. "The issue isn't that people in the past knew a lot more and know less now," says [Jacob] Hacker. "It's that their ignorance was counterbalanced by denser political organizations."

And with that ignorance comes consequences, as uninformed and easily-fooled voters have a severely limited working understanding of current events, but at the same time, have enormous power over the nation's future.

The standard response is that people are busy, and I get that. But as Isaac Chotiner persuasively argued a while back, "[W]hen you live in a democracy, there are very few good excuses for not having minimal knowledge about what is going on in the world. How much newspaper reading would it have taken to realize that between 1992 and 1996 the deficit decreased? Or to realize that Saddam did not have a hand in 9/11? Now ask yourself how much time the average American spends watching mediocre television. Voters can choose to be ignorant or disinterested, but that choice is fundamentally their own."

The problem goes beyond voters rewarding the wrong candidates or parties; ignorance undermines the entire process. When voters are ignorant, candidates are more likely to lie, confident in their ability to get away with it. When the electorate is disengaged, policymakers feel less pressure to exercise good judgment, knowing they can just pull the wool over the public's eyes later.

I'm obviously engaged in politics, and if you're reading this, you are too. Not everyone shares our interests, and that's fine. But many Americans make time for the things they find important. They spent time watching sports, or keeping up on celebrities, or whatever. And while it would be the height of arrogance to suggest the public change its leisure habits, our political system -- and the country overall -- relies on a certain level of sophistication among the public, and there's ample evidence that we're just not at that level.

In human history, it's never been easier to get -- and stay -- well informed. Folks just have to take some responsibility.

Steve Benen 1:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (61)

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Comments

whenever i see poll results like this, i always think "damn teacher's unions!"

no, not really, but i do think that it's fascinating that so many know-nothing adults blame teacher's unions for their children's equivalent ignorance.

Posted by: howard on March 21, 2011 at 1:19 PM | PERMALINK

I would add a few more observations:
1) People think they're informed and aren't.
2) We have a strong anti-intellectual streak in this country that is very prominent now.
3) Culturally, we've gotten into a very bad habit of never admitting error, and indeed doubling down when confronted with mistakes. That exacerbates ignorance.

Posted by: Fang on March 21, 2011 at 1:20 PM | PERMALINK

How much newspaper reading would it have taken to realize that between 1992 and 1996 the deficit decreased?

It doesn't matter when most people don't even know what the word "deficit" really means, and as a result both parties can throw the word around to gin up an argument without any consequences.

Now ask yourself how much time the average American spends watching mediocre television.

All education is self-education.

Posted by: bignose on March 21, 2011 at 1:21 PM | PERMALINK

"How much newspaper reading would it have taken to realize that between 1992 and 1996 the deficit decreased? Or to realize that Saddam did not have a hand in 9/11?"

A long, long time if you have evil people whispering in your ear that Saddam is the ultimate evil, that democrats always bust the budget, and that the newspapers are full of liberal lies.

Posted by: Boronx on March 21, 2011 at 1:22 PM | PERMALINK

When what they are being told on the teevee news doesn't make sense some of my family members call me up to get an explanation. I'm guessing there are others here who are asked to explain the stuff the newstalkers leave out.

It isn't that people don't want to know what is going on. I think a lot of it is that they have figured out by now that the speculation that passes for news on the teevee is worth the same as the gossip at work.

Posted by: thebewilderness on March 21, 2011 at 1:22 PM | PERMALINK

Very thoughtful and uplifting. However, citizens are often actively disinformed by partisan players. For example:

Many liberals believe that Wisconsin had a budget surplus at the start of the year. They also believe that Governor Walker's tax cuts created the current shortfall.

These beliefs are both false, of course. But on MSNBC, Rachel Maddow kept aggressively confusing the issue even after she was challenged by Politifact. And at a certain liberal web site, Ezra Klein was quoted, in some detail, when he erroneously advanced these claims. When he corrected himself the next day, this particular liberal web site didn't tell its readers.

Can anyone guess which well-known liberal web site I have in mind? Many liberals are currently ignorant on these matters because they have been disinformed by liberal players like these.

Fox has always played this way. We liberals have begun to catch up.

Posted by: bob somerby on March 21, 2011 at 1:24 PM | PERMALINK

It used to be that you could watch the half hour of news in the evening, read Newsweek once a week and perhaps one of the two or three local papers and be reasonably informed about what's going on in the world. Not anymore. the half hour of news is filled with "balanced" he said/he said reporting, equating outright lies with the truth and saying the viewer can figure it out. (NO they can't if there is no arbiter of the truth) The local paper is down to one ad-filled, poor excuse for journalism, drowning as they lose readers left and right and wonder what they can do do stay in business. (telling truth from lies would be a good start) Even Newsweek is a shell of it's former self.

"Lucky" for me, I'm one of 15 million unemployed, and can spend hours on the internet figuring out what the heck is going on in the world.

Posted by: atlliberal on March 21, 2011 at 1:27 PM | PERMALINK

"Folks just have to take some responsibility."

A lot of them think they do.

Here's where they go for their news and information:

-Cable TV - FOX is by far the worst, but how bad has CNN gotten? And MSNBC's evening hours are countered by the remaining 20 hours.

-Talk radio, with people like Rush, Sean, Glenn, and countless others. AM/FM/Satellite - they're all on 24x7x365.

-Editorial and Op-ed pages like the WaTimes, WaPo, WSJ, NY Post, and syndicated writers from Will to Coulter, Krauthammer to Malkin.

-E-mail's sent by friends and family.

The internet, with sites like LGF, and countless other.

So the information's out there.

But the problem isn't that people aren't taking responsibility for getting and staying informed, it's that many of their sources don't make the effort to be responsible. As a matter of fact, they seem to pride themselve on their irrestponsibility!

Feelings outweigh logic and facts.

And the fictitious BS spread by the right today, becomes tomorrows non-fiction.

Canada wouldn't allow FOX to broadcast up there because they don't allow their airwaves to be used by organizaions that lie.
Would that we had that policy.

Fairness Doctrine? Equal Time Rule?
Anyone?

Posted by: c u n d gulag on March 21, 2011 at 1:30 PM | PERMALINK

This ignorance is part and parcel of the Republican party's game plan. The 24/7 echo chamber of Fox news, talk radio, etc gives them enormous advantage, yet they seldom have to pay a political price for it, thanks to our corporate-owned media's willingness to look the other way. (Of course, this is in direct contrast to the media's treatment of the left wing - they ignore all of the thoughtful policy people like Hacker or Cowie, yet blast it all over the place if they can find something remotely compromising to pin on moveon.org.)

Rick Perlstein pointed out that prior to Nixon there was a clear line between the Republican party and the riper aspects of the right wing. Barry Goldwater never had anything to do with the John Birch Society or creepy religious cults the way that modern Republicans do. Nixon crossed the line and neither the media nor Republicans ever looked back.

Posted by: worcestergirl on March 21, 2011 at 1:31 PM | PERMALINK

"How much newspaper reading would it have taken to realize that between 1992 and 1996 the deficit decreased? Or to realize that Saddam did not have a hand in 9/11?"

Probably a Lot. It depends on how fauxified the rag you are reading is . Murdoch Street Journal..I don't think so ...New York post nahhh. Most of the other media outlets are all owned by corporate friendly conglomerates.. not much chance of truth there .

Posted by: John R on March 21, 2011 at 1:37 PM | PERMALINK

Is it any surprise why Republicans are defunding schools? An ignorant electorate votes on emotions - easily influenced by mass media that distorts the facts.

Posted by: Dean on March 21, 2011 at 1:40 PM | PERMALINK

Whenever I see quizzes like this I take them. So I missed one this time, though I think a few of the answers are incomplete, wrong or open to interpretation.

Quizzes like this and the resulting stories have been in the press, I don't know, every other year of my entire life. So what? Outside of we news geeks, most people do not memorize the minutia of the political system. "Land of the Free, Home of the Brave, Play Ball" pretty much sums up the situation.

I'd much rather see how reporters, pundits and bloggers do on these tests. At least it can be a mark against which we can judge it they have a clue.

Posted by: martin on March 21, 2011 at 1:41 PM | PERMALINK

There are a variety of reasons why people are ignorant of important civic information. It is important to distinguish between them.

Sometimes people are ignorant because they have been lied to. E.g. Saddam and 9/11.

Sometimes people are ignorant because they have been told by the media, explicitly or implicitly, that the information either isn't important (e.g. most foreign news or the identity of the V.P.) or is too complex for average people to understand (e.g. what happens at a nuclear power plant, the deficit, or financial derivative regulation).

There are millions of people who walk around every day who are perfectly capable of understanding the NFL salary cap or the economics of re-signing Derek Jeter, but have been told by the media that understanding how social security is funded or how mortgage-backed securities work is too complex for their pretty little minds to handle.

Posted by: square1 on March 21, 2011 at 1:42 PM | PERMALINK

I was just going to say that there is a whole rightist Paramedia, dedicated to misinforming and outright lies about just about everything. They are dedicated to playing the cultural cards for the Religious, the Bigoted, the Folks still in captive of the Cold war mindset, Identity Southerners, Self-identified Patriots. There's big money behind it, and a whole reactionary clique that does nothing but attack it's perceived enemies.
And then there are folks who have absorbed the conspiracy theories (and think X File and all the conspiracy fiction real), who don't trust 'the Government' or the parts of it they're told not to trust. Who think AlGore and Obama are about to take their penises, I mean guns.. Who think teachers are the enemy, Education a plot to steal their kids' souls, and only fancypants buy evolution/global warming/the moon landing...
Reality will win out, I have to believe (I got kids, so, perforce, I must be an optimist) but they are going to have to be smacked in the face with it, and the liars silenced..

Posted by: MR Bill on March 21, 2011 at 1:45 PM | PERMALINK

"All things considered, though, these results don't strike me as especially outrageous,.... "

Really, they are outrageous. The failure to have any historical grounding makes a vast part of our electorate susceptible to accepting fairy tales peddled by unscrupulous politicians. And often leaves them unable to discern what politicians are telling the truth and what ones aren't.

Posted by: David in NY on March 21, 2011 at 1:45 PM | PERMALINK

The US military television stations provide an excellent example of how we could provide continuing education.

They basically rebroadcast US shows, but since they don't carry for-profit advertising, the military broadcasters fill those time blocks with history, public safety, and other information. Yeah, it's cheesy stuff with low production casts. The soldiers would joke about it, but it was clear that the information was getting through.

Imagine if 20% of the time currently used by for-profit advertising was used for education, public safety, government awareness, and oh - history and citizenship bits.

Posted by: Wapiti on March 21, 2011 at 1:46 PM | PERMALINK

Delli Carpini and Keefer, in their standard work on the political knowledge of Americans note that "...citizens appear no less informed about politics than they were half a century ago. The bad news is that despite an unprecedented expansion in public education, a communications revolution that has shattered national and international boundaries, and the increasing relevance of national and international events and policies to the daily lives of Americans, citizens appear no more informed about politics." (What Americans Know About Politics, p.133)

Posted by: HBinBoston on March 21, 2011 at 1:46 PM | PERMALINK
An overwhelming majority, for example, can't name one of the writers of the Federalist Papers, but that's hardly surprising. Similar numbers don't know how many U.S. House members there are, who was president during World War I, or the precise number of amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

All things considered, though, these results don't strike me as especially outrageous

They should.

I'm obviously engaged in politics, and if you're reading this, you are too. Not everyone shares our interests, and that's fine.

I disagree that it is "fine" in a democracy (whether direct or representative) for the citizenry not to be universally -- or at least nearly so -- engaged in politics. It may not be a personal moral failing on the part of those who aren't engaged, to be sure, but it is certainly at least a symptom of a societal dysfunction which threatens everyone. Democracy simply does not work without a citizenry that is both informed and engaged.

It is as unacceptable for a citizen in a democracy to be disengaged from or poorly informed about what is going on in government as it is for a government decision-maker to be similarly disengaged or misinformed, because a citizen in a democracy is a government decision-maker.

Posted by: cmdicely on March 21, 2011 at 1:47 PM | PERMALINK

'How dumb are we?'

I think the whole concept of 'daylight savings time' answers that question.

Posted by: cld on March 21, 2011 at 1:49 PM | PERMALINK

Just because Americans don't parrot the liberal narrative, it doesn't mean they are ignorant of history.

Posted by: Al on March 21, 2011 at 1:51 PM | PERMALINK

Americans are dumbasses, who will get crushed by China and India in the next twenty years. They watch Fox and vote against their own interests. The Chancellor from Penn State worked on the Gov's campaign. Now the Gov plans to cut Penn States budget in half. The chancellor should be fired for contributing to the destruction of Penn State. If he someone so educated cannot get it right, what chance do we have as Americans?

Posted by: Live Free or Die on March 21, 2011 at 1:52 PM | PERMALINK

Both parties benefit from the low information voter, perpetually distracted a media that serves them bright and shiny distractions designed to sell them things they don't need, can't afford, and desperately have to have.

A cynic might say that the media and the politicians are in cahoots. . .

Posted by: DAY on March 21, 2011 at 1:52 PM | PERMALINK

May not know much about history, but they sure know those more important things like "Tax and Spend Democrats", "Tax cuts pay for themselves", Tax cuts for the wealthy create jobs", "Social Security is a ponzi scheme", "Obama is a Socialist", Government Insurance", etc., etc., etc...

Posted by: ComradeAnon on March 21, 2011 at 1:54 PM | PERMALINK

I'm afraid I can't agree about the relative importance of historical knowledge as opposed to that of current events. First, without knowing the past, we have "always" been at war with Eastasia. Second, there's a degree to which current events are partly about opinions, whereas the past is more about demonstrable facts. E.g., should we care about the deficit, vs. what effect has a deficit had in the past. Knowing the latter may well change one's opinion on the former.

Posted by: stinger on March 21, 2011 at 1:54 PM | PERMALINK

The media depends on corporation buying their commercial space for their existence. They cant rock the boat to hard.

Posted by: Live Free or Die on March 21, 2011 at 1:54 PM | PERMALINK

Altho I'm worried about how little people know, please note that tests like these do not allow for background, context knowledge.

Posted by: modaca on March 21, 2011 at 1:57 PM | PERMALINK

For bob somerby: You present a lot of assertions in your comment; Geez, would it have killed you to include a few hyperlinks? (and you wonder how people get misinformation -- maybe it's because gullible people believe unsourced assertions at face value.

Here is the Politfact link you probably were referring to . In addition the Rachel Maddow inaccuracy you cite is interesting and the result of confusing/contradictory numbers being published.

But I accept your general point that falsehoods spread further and faster than truth; but the problem may not simply be one of bad faith or paid advocacy; the numbers may be genuinely confusing, and a typical reporter may not have the skills to interpret them (or the time or pressure to print corrections).

Posted by: Robert Nagle on March 21, 2011 at 1:58 PM | PERMALINK

Geez, somerby, David Broder's seat hasn't even gone cold.

Posted by: hells littlest angel on March 21, 2011 at 1:59 PM | PERMALINK

Being very busy is tho, part of the problem. Americans have less time because they are pushed to work extra jobs and hours, to make enough money with low hourly pay and to satisfy rapacious self-absorbed employers who expect your 110% but care little for your own welfare and release you at their earlier convenience.

Posted by: neil b on March 21, 2011 at 2:12 PM | PERMALINK

tell it to the Republicans who are cutting Education as fast as they can in many states, under the guise of Deficit reduction.

Posted by: T2 on March 21, 2011 at 2:15 PM | PERMALINK

For Bob Somerby I'll also point out that Mr. Benen did cover the Politifact/Rachel Maddow story, so readers of a certain well-known web site certainly are aware of the story even if they don't get their news from any other source.

Posted by: Old School on March 21, 2011 at 2:18 PM | PERMALINK

I would bet money that most of the people getting these questions wrong are not people of the race that makes up the Tea Party.

Posted by: Mlke K on March 21, 2011 at 2:27 PM | PERMALINK

Shorter somerby at all times: Step off the self-congratulation beat. It's all mine.

Posted by: The original Frank on March 21, 2011 at 2:29 PM | PERMALINK

Quizzes like this is the "Are you smarter than a 5th grader" effect. As an adult, how many people can remember the trivia learned in fifth grade.

It's easier to remember what happened on your favorite tv show last week than what you learned (in my case) 45 years ago. It doesn't make someone dumb for not remembering who was president during world war 1. Information not regularly accessed becomes non-relevant to normal living and forgotten or pushed out for more recent knowledge.

Posted by: wbn on March 21, 2011 at 2:36 PM | PERMALINK

In an adversarial two-party system, neither side is really interested in telling people what they need to know, only in telling them what will help win.

Posted by: paul on March 21, 2011 at 2:39 PM | PERMALINK

"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be". -Thomas Jefferson

Posted by: Texas Aggie on March 21, 2011 at 2:40 PM | PERMALINK

Does anyone really think that this is an accident?

The GOP spent years and years pounding the media with claims of "LIBERAL BIAS!!!111!one!" to the point the media started acting like someone who has been beaten and battered into submission. The thing is, though, it all came from a few select groups.

(Example: In the 80s, the Washington Post was doing fact checks of Reagan's speeches, pointing out all his lies. One conservative group pounded the paper with letters and calls to the point it stopped doing it. They thought it was a widespread complaint, but it wasn't.)

Once the media was pliant, they (with the help of faux Dems) removed laws about the Fairness Doctrine, media ownership rules, etc.

Following that, they bought up the airwaves, flooding them with lies and rightwing propaganda for more than 20+ years, resulting in what we have now: a bunch of folks who will in their hearts, with all of their souls, believe that 2 + 2 = 5 because they saw it on Hannity's show.

**sigh**

Now that I'm all cheered up on a Monday afternoon ...

Posted by: Mark D on March 21, 2011 at 2:42 PM | PERMALINK

Somerby-Rachel said no such thing. Check out her blog and her request for Politifact to correct their rating. She actually acknowledged that there was a shortfall. Now about your correction...

Posted by: ComradeAnon on March 21, 2011 at 2:45 PM | PERMALINK

Some people would say the solution to this problem is to have require a civics literacy test for voters. Others would disagree on the grounds it would disenfranchise the poor and the minorities. Perhaps, but I sometimes wonder whether it might not disenfranchise the Republicans even more.

Posted by: walldon on March 21, 2011 at 2:49 PM | PERMALINK

Somerby-Rachel said no such thing. Check out her blog and her request for Politifact to correct their rating. She actually acknowledged that there was a shortfall. Now about your correction...

Sorry, no correction of his "correction" is forthcoming. Somerby's style at his place is excruciatingly slow exposition and unbearable repetition. At everybody's else's place, his M.O. is to just hit and run.

Posted by: The original Frank on March 21, 2011 at 2:52 PM | PERMALINK

Americans like the news like their fast food: quick, soft, and easily digested.

Posted by: JEA on March 21, 2011 at 3:01 PM | PERMALINK

Don't let the media off the hook here. There was a time when someone like Michelle Bachmann would have been aggressively challenged by an interviewer when she spouted misinformation, or when Newt Gingrich would never, ever have been given a pass for saying that he cheated on his second wife because he was so patriotic that he had to work late with his secretary. Nowadays, mainstream "journalists" just sit there like stooges and let people talk nonsense, while Fox eagerly applauds and reinforces them for doing it.

Posted by: T-Rex on March 21, 2011 at 3:13 PM | PERMALINK

The reason for this ignorance is pretty obvious.

Americans have been brainwashed.

We are a nation of consumer bots. It's all we've been good for going on 40 years now. Even that is changing now that the rich don't need the American middle class anymore, due to the emerging consumer markets in China and India.

Want to fix this? Rescind Citizens United, publicly finance all public office elections, bring back the fairness doctrine, break up the media monopolies.

Posted by: citizen_pain on March 21, 2011 at 3:22 PM | PERMALINK

I bet all conservative pundits can answer these questions yet they still are on the wrong side of history.
Jefferson was there and he got most of it wrong.

Posted by: hornblower on March 21, 2011 at 3:26 PM | PERMALINK

I would like to add to @square1's message above with a point I have been thinking about lately.

A lot of questions like in the Newsweek quiz can be answered in 15 seconds using my iPhone so why should I commit to memory such information? I don't "need" to remember any president's name or period of time a war was occurring. I have the world's memory at my disposal. So getting caught by Newsweek not "knowing" the answer seems a bit unreasonable.

Of course the power above does not relieve me of knowing about such things or understanding the pros and cons or the context of such events or persons.

I want to see Newsweek do a study on how well Americans can discuss about things from both sides of the argument. Then look at how they choose to which side they agree.

Posted by: Keith on March 21, 2011 at 3:27 PM | PERMALINK

we're uninformed? what else is new? 50 years ago most americans never heard of vietnam. 110 years ago, most americans never heard of the philippines. 165 years ago most americans had no clue why we went to war against mexico. as the song goes,

We're in a bigger, better war/ For your patriotic pastime./ We don't know what we're fighting for--/ But we didn't know the last time!/ So […] Strike up the band!


why this is i don't know. perhaps it's simply the human condition. we choose not know because it is the path of least resistance despite the ultimate consequences of being uninformed. perhaps it's easier to accept simplistic answers than to think things through and come up with our own conclusions.

what's the solution? i have no idea.


Posted by: mudwall jackson on March 21, 2011 at 3:28 PM | PERMALINK

29 percent couldn't name the vice president.

God I hate useless crap like this. Guess what: 71% could! That's 2/3! We've always known about 25% of the population is batshit insane, the same people who answered "Strongly Approve" when asked about Bush's job performance, the same people who think healthcare reform includes death panels and FEMA re-education camps. C'mon. Quit giving Batshit America a platform, already.

Why is it we never focus on the 70% of us who know who the president and vice president are, who know the basic shit even if we are too busy to pay attention to the minutiae?

Posted by: Southern Beale on March 21, 2011 at 3:38 PM | PERMALINK

2) We have a strong anti-intellectual streak in this country that is very prominent now.

It isn't so much "anti-intellectual" as it is being force to deal with "intellectuals" who aren't.

Posted by: Neo on March 21, 2011 at 3:38 PM | PERMALINK

Some of these results are much more awful than others. Every few years a survey is done, and the VP question is missed by a lot of people. Likewise, are people supposed to remember the exact number of House members (435) or the precise number of Constitutional amendments (twenty-something; hell, I can't cast the first stone on this one)? They're the type of questions my recent-citizen friends always know and ask to try and stump me.

That 44% who don't know what the Bill of Rights is is much more appalling.

Posted by: Tom Allen on March 21, 2011 at 3:52 PM | PERMALINK

Re:

But many Americans make time for the things they find important. They spent time watching sports, or keeping up on celebrities, or whatever.
I bet not as many Americans keep up with sports or celebrities as you think. It's in the media's interest to pretend those things are tremendously important to Americans, but I bet if you asked people who won last year's World Series not that many would know that either.

Posted by: wahoofive on March 21, 2011 at 3:54 PM | PERMALINK

These things, well most of these things, are the basis of our country. My brother and I still talk about how the things we learned in Coach Murray's Civics class nearly 40 years later are still important today. And maybe my grandkids will learn about the case that overturns Citizens United. (Sooner would be ok, doubtful.) I don't want what I know my country stands for summed up in what I can write in a few words on my palm.

Posted by: ComradeAnon on March 21, 2011 at 4:00 PM | PERMALINK

Newsweek's report added that the world is "becoming more and more inhospitable to incurious know-nothings -- like us."

Oh, golly, you betcha! What is it with Newsweek and their "gotcha" questions?

Posted by: josef on March 21, 2011 at 4:03 PM | PERMALINK

It's a shame that many Americans can't name the exact number of Congressmen or the precise number of amendments to the US Constitution, but those are just number facts. I am more concerned that they don't know why we fought the Cold War (or World War 2), what communism is or that the US has a capitalist economic system.

Knowing that the alphabet has 26 letters is a number fact, but getting it right doesn't affect ones ability to judge and comprehend. Knowing how use those letters to read, however, matters.

Posted by: PTate in MN on March 21, 2011 at 4:18 PM | PERMALINK

not that i enjoy piling on bob somerby, who has certainly done his fair share of heavy lifting, but where in the world does he get off telling us what "many liberals" think?

let's see: there's 300M people in america; self-described liberals are roughly 20 - 25% of the population; many should mean at least 1/2.

so bob somerby knows how 25M liberals think? and he's determined this from looking at one liberal blog?

if a reporter whom somerby didn't like pushed such astonishing piffle, he'd be all over him for arrant, unsourced nonsense.

Posted by: howard on March 21, 2011 at 4:33 PM | PERMALINK

Many liberals believe that Wisconsin had a budget surplus at the start of the year. They also believe that Governor Walker's tax cuts created the current shortfall.

These beliefs are both false, of course.

WTF? Your precis leaves out the fact that the current WI shortfall is miniscule compared to the massive looming deficit caused by the tax cuts. So it's perfectly accurate to characterize the state's budget crisis as having been caused by those tax cuts. Without the tax cuts, the budget situation in the medium term is far more manageable. Without the tax cuts, it would not be possible to gin up the crisis atmosphere as a pretext for union-busting.

Posted by: kth on March 21, 2011 at 4:34 PM | PERMALINK

@ thebewilderness at 1:22: newstalkers

Useful new word. But how do you break it? Is it news talkers or new stalkers? Or are they perhaps synonyms?

I suspect that people are neither smarter nor stupider than they used to be? They give their attention to matters that they perceive to be interesting or beneficial to them. If American history and current affairs are neglected, maybe it is because many people feel excluded from the public discourse those subjects inform, sensing that those exercising power in this country neither welcome participation by ordinary people nor respond to it.

Then again, maybe mediocre television programs really are better than rancorous Congressional committee hearings and debates.

Eat your spinach is not the whole answer.

Posted by: tamiasmin on March 21, 2011 at 4:36 PM | PERMALINK
A lot of questions like in the Newsweek quiz can be answered in 15 seconds using my iPhone so why should I commit to memory such information?

Because if you don't know it, its not part of the processing that goes on when you interpret new new information, and thus you will do a poor job of correctly identifying the significance of new information and making decisions (both "final" decisions like voting decisions, and intermediate decisions like what to research further) based on that new information.

One could, in theory, start from a position of no relevant knowledge except how to do research each election cycle and make good decisions based on a massive research effort each cycle, but that's considerably less practical than just being reasonably informed in the first place.

Posted by: cmdicely on March 21, 2011 at 4:42 PM | PERMALINK

Apparently I'm thick as a stump because I only just now realized that if something happened to both Obama and Biden,

John Boehner would be President.

Posted by: cld on March 21, 2011 at 5:49 PM | PERMALINK

Pathetic, but the MSM has a lot to answer for on this. I recall educational programming aimed at children that offered up history in interesting ways and made it vivid.

Now, what? There is so much disinformation spread around and so many, many of the serious errors made repeatedly by conservatives like Bachmann re history and the principles of the US Constititution that it makes me wonder if it has not been on purpose, to confuse the children, and permit republican/tea partiers to sail on unopposed into the theocratic/police state totalitarianism they would like to see established here.

Posted by: jjm on March 21, 2011 at 6:23 PM | PERMALINK

I agree with and reject your closing argument.

Yes, we have access to more information now than at any other time in history, provided you are of modest income and have internet access. I could make an argument about classism here but shall not in favor of another topic.

While it is easier to get and stay informed, it is also easier to get and stay misinformed. There is so much information available that Joe average may indeed not have time to sift through it all. So they pick a few sites that give them a mix of truth and fiction and viola. A person who feels informed but is not. Cross referencing and looking at the spin in reports with an unbiased eye is difficult even for those of us wary of it.

Most news outlets these days seem to be a lot closer to opinion than factual when examined and a great dearth of articles are barely-concealed plagiarism from some other source. I also find the depth of today's articles typically much too shallow and I've become generally loathe to click on any link someone passes me because the vast majority contain no more information in the article than they do in the title of the piece.

Like everything else in the modern diet, the majority of news is filler with scant nutrition.

Posted by: Samantha on March 21, 2011 at 6:55 PM | PERMALINK

bob somerby (above) is incorrect, of course. I mean, he's right Politifact rated Maddow as 'false' - but they did that without actually paying attention to any of WI law or how their budgets work. All their minuses are things which happen after the date there's a surplus, and of course, they don't bother to pay attention to what a budget repair bill is.

http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/02/20/947446/-Politifact:-Rachel-is-Wrong-about-WI-Deficit,-but-Walkers-Pants-are-on-Fire

So who's telling the truth? Is Maddow wrong that the situation is manufactures? Politifact says no, but without telling you that in fact, she's right about that point. Politifact ignores that WI uses two-year budgets, not one-year budgets.

Sure, the one thing they catch on that the tax giveaway happens next budget doesn't affect this one - but she didn't say that, did she?

However, it's useful shorthand to point out that these two numbers are similar. Why would you add tax giveaways if there's an emergency need to rescind worker contracts?

Anyhow, you have these false 'balance' views ruining any attempt to get informed. And so people throw up their hands and stop caring...

Posted by: Crissa on March 21, 2011 at 7:23 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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