[2018 update: This post is now included in my ten years of selected essays on bad history and its toxic effects on American civics. The first of those, from 2008. is here.]
One of my favorite radio shows, Brian Lehrer’s on WNYC, had Eric Lane from Hofstra University on yesterday to discuss results of yet another depressing study — in this case one conducted by him on behalf of the Brennan Center for Justice — revealing widespread ignorance of the U.S. Constitution, and to lament the threat to democracy represented by people’s ignorance of the founding law that governs our lives every day.
A similar widespread cultural deficit is under discussion at the American Revolution Center (ARC), which has conducted a detailed survey [UPDATE: This became the new Museum of the American Revolution; the link to the survey is now broken] revealing Americans’ abysmal ignorance of the founding period in general.
In both studies, people state that they consider knowledge of the founding and the Constitution to be of the utmost importance. They naturally therefore overrate their own competence in it, and both studies abound with examples of subjects’ almost complete incompetence. Lane’s study shows, for example, that people think the President can declare war. (Wherever can they have gotten that idea?) The preface to the ARC study notes that whereas 60 percent of people know that reality-TV stars Jon and Kate Gosselin have eight kids, more than 30 per cent don’t know the century of the American Revolution. [UPDATE: So 40 percent don’t know how many kids the Gosselins have, and nearly 70 percent do know the Revolution occurred in the 18th century.] Results of this kind are always presented as dire crises in American life, naturally enough, since democratic participation in republican government is generally supposed to require a citizenry informed about what has really happened and how such governments work. “Wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government,” wrote Jefferson in 1789.
So the results always come with urgent calls for immediate action, especially for more and better education. Lane frames the issue as an “absence of information, of education… it’s what they’re learning or not learning in schools.” ARC concludes that “Americans are not sufficiently informed about the fundamental democratic principles, ideas, and institutions that we have inherited from the Revolution and that sustain us as a nation.” Lane sees such ignorance as “a real challenge to the continuation of American democracy.” ARC goes so far as to say “we are failing our Founders.”
We keep hearing this. I’ve written about aspects of a related story — the ironies involved when people who make major claims on the Constitution, across the political spectrum, don’t know much about it. It’s especially significant to me that such people are found not only among the generally ignorant but among the deeply educated in other areas. People who can read “Beowulf” in the original and do advanced math don’t know anything about how their government got here and how it works. Which rarely stops them from opining.
The depth of ignorance is weird, and it does raise important questions. But reacting to these studies with calls for more and more education in civics and history offers a prime example of doing the same thing over and over again and getting the same bad results. Lane says “… children in the public schools … will not be tested in 4th or 8th grade for social studies under the assessment program, and there’s even consideration of giving it up or making it optional in the 11th grade — so no testing, no teaching.” ARC quotes the celebrated biographer David McCullough on the danger of not knowing about the founders: “I don’t think we can ever know enough about them.”
A heavy-breathing, even slightly hysterical feeling prevails. It’s as if cultivating an appropriately informed citizenry requires constantly, ceaselessly reminding people of how important all this stuff is, and/or how all-fired cool it is, beating into them what happened and seducing them into knowing how it all works, making certain that the basic facts have been lodged in the maximum number of brains and can never, ever be forgotten.
But addressing the problem of Americans’ ignorance of America that way can never work. To learn anything, you have to have a reason to know it. There are ways of giving people a certain immediate reason — a fake or punitive one — for knowing things, and even for being unable to forget them. But the kind of knowledge that comes solely from testing, grading, punishing, and bribing doesn’t lead to the kind of active, civic engagement that those who bemoan American ignorance of America say they want to foster. (“No testing, no teaching” is one of the biggest things that would have to change — in every subject.) The bemoaners want people to care about the workings of the Constitution and what happened during the American Revolution, care enough to bring such knowledge to bear on real-life, ongoing, day-to-day political decision-making. Nothing could be more absurd than trying to achieve that kind of real, active engagement by informing people over and over again how all-fired important (or even how really really fun) all this founding-history material is, how great and self-sacrificing (or even how amazingly flawed and human) the founders were, how without knowing which amendment is which or who said what when, they’re missing a golden opportunity bequeathed them by our greatest generation.
In fact, it’s reasonable to conclude that the whole “importance” thing, not just failing to ameliorate the problem, is causing it. The one thing people say they know about our founding is that it’s terribly, terribly important. They just don’t know anything about it. Maybe if people didn’t feel required to rank knowledge of government and history as overwhelmingly important, they’d be more likely to actually care about some of it. To think and wonder about it. Love and hate it. Thus come to know a thing or two about it, something they might use or just enjoy. Which might lead them to want to know another thing or two, or ten, or who knows.
Because that’s what education is. If you want people to not know something, just keep telling them that there’s no limit to how much they should know about it.
In that context, it’s worth considering some dark facts about American life that reflect on why people might not be likely to engage with founding history and the mechanisms of national law. Here are some comments posted on WNYC’s excellent “It’s a Free Country” site in response to Lane’s appearance on Brian Lehrer’s show:
In closing the Constitution quiz segment Mr. Lane referred to our government as “the American democracy”. Read the Constitution.
Pretty easy math for street smart kids; who cares about intellectual parlor games, endless arguments, when you’re broke/sick/hungry?
I consider it a real credit to the younger generation that they see through the smoke and mirrors, hypocrisy and propaganda that constitute our national ‘debate” and decline to study the almost entirely fictional historical narrative taught in our schools.
I can’t say I know, and would love to learn otherwise, but I’m having a hard time envisioning the American Revolution Center, the Brennan Center, or David McCullough taking seriously such sweeping, bleak, shoot-from-the-hip remarks and addressing the starkness of the attitudes they evince about our country or the nature of citizenship (Brian Lehrer is actually one of the few who know how to do that). The pained tone that history people usually adopt when referring to American ignorance makes me suspect that these comments would only amplify the ongoing, repetitive calls for the immediate transmission of more information, if only to relieve people of the horrible error of thinking in such a grim way about our country and the process of becoming educated about it.
But I think these responses point to just the kind of questions that might help us address American ignorance of America. Take that last comment quoted above, which sees kids today “declining” to study history the way it’s taught. I think there’s a way in which that’s right, and that way extends to adult disengagement too. It relates neatly to the first comment above: Prof. Lane did glibly equate the Constitution with democracy, when he must know perfectly well — indeed, he alludes to a related issue elsewhere in the interview — that the framers were trying to push back democracy. In the interview, Lane also asserted, as a fact that people should know, that under the Articles of Confederation the country was falling apart. Well, that’s a cliché of American History 101, but it’s also a deeply interested interpretation. The framers felt — indeed were blatant about feeling — that the country was falling apart, for them, for the investing and landowning class. A big argument would be required, and has long been engaged in, to show that the concerns of that class really did reflect a danger to the country as conceived of by those not in that class. . . . And on and on.
Too complicated? Silly to even bring up, while people labor in nescience as to basic fact? There’s a widely held idea, I think manifestly false, that arguments like these, over interpretation, can’t be profitably held until people are in possession of the same set of neutral, agreed-upon facts. Hence the endless force-feeding of the same baby food that people keep spitting up. To me, the real “American ignorance” problem lies in a patronizing tendency by educators, writers, public historians, and cultural institutions (hello, PBS) to seek to correct ignorance by imposing as indispensable fact what are actually overdetermined interpretations, even while denying every interesting social, economic, and political ramification of those interpretations. Little wonder, maybe, that for all their certainty that this stuff must be super-important, and their consequent shame about not knowing any of it, people can’t seem to actually digest it.
It’s not that Lane’s history is bunk and mine isn’t, so let’s drill mine into people’s heads instead of his. It’s that the arguments themselves are more engaging — more literally real — than the so-called facts. Passionate, personal interest should precede, bear on, and send people in search of fact. If it did, those “broke/sick/hungry” kids, invoked with immense relevance by the second comment above, might at least have something to begin to grab hold of. Anything about the purposes of the Revolution and of founding law that doesn’t start roughly with the mentality expressed by that comment isn’t going to have any traction. Because it shouldn’t. Knowledge and skills are byproducts of education, not goals. The bemoaners, custodians, certifiers, and curators are part of the problem, not the solution. Unless they change, things can only get worse.
Or put it another way: If you haven’t noticed that the President does have power to declare war, regardless of what the Constitution says, you’re the one who needs an education. The ignorant seem to have that one figured out.