July 1, 2009
What are the three branches of the U.S. government?
If you can answer that question correctly, you''re smarter than 51 percent of the people in the U.S.
Another Fourth of July is almost upon us. A majority of us know how we''ll mark the occasion -- probably with fireworks, beer and barbecue.
Unfortunately, fewer than half of us have a good idea of why we''re celebrating.
Americans'' knowledge of U.S. history and basic civic matters is pretty dismal. A poll conducted last year by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute showed that fewer than 50 percent of us know basic facts, such as, what are the three branches of government? (Legislative, executive, judicial.)
The same study found that only 21 percent of us know that the phrase "Government of the people, by the people, for the people" is in the Gettysburg Address.
And so on, and so on.
The survey quizzed people from all walks of life -- college grads, kids in school and people who didn''t go to school past high school. (Pollsters interviewed Harvard University students, who collectively received a D-plus.)
I found it particularly amusing that in this survey, researchers noticed that people who identified themselves as elected officials scored lower than Americans on average. You think you don''t know anything about the government? The folks you elected to run it for you know even less.
OK, this is nothing new -- every Fourth of July, it seems, someone is trucking out a survey to show how little Americans know about our own country.
What a buzzkill -- especially on one of the two days each year we reserve for blowing things up.
On the bright side, more people seem to know about the government than those who care to utilize the basic right of a citizen -- casting a ballot. Only 12 percent of registered Columbus voters, for example, voted in the May primary election. Voter turnout was low statewide in municipal elections this year.
We''re the most successful democracy in the world, thanks in large part to those who came before us and built this country into what it is today. People like the Greatest Generation, who fought Hitler''s armies (do you know who Hitler is? Only 25 percent of high school seniors surveyed last year could place him). And the Founding Fathers, who forged our Constitution (a document only around one in four of us seems to know much about).
Democracy takes work. They knew it; those fighting for freedom around the world know it. Our soldiers in Iraq and their families know it. The people fighting uphill, if not impossible, struggles for basic human rights in places like Iran and China wish they had what we take for granted.
Sorry to be so preachy; I''m just exercising my First Amendment right to free speech (a right that just about one in five elected officials surveyed can place in the Constitution, the same one that one in three high school students said goes "too far" in the rights it guarantees, according to another 2005 survey).
I''d better be careful. Only half of those high school students, back in 2005, said newspapers should be able to publish freely without government approval. Some of them are old enough to run for office now.
As long as they don''t take away the fireworks, the beer and the barbecue, we''ll be fine.
Steve Mullen is Managing Editor of The Dispatch.
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