Friday, March 03, 2006


Do Americans know the US constitution?

The Washington Post notes "with interest" that Americans know more about pop culture than about the constitution:

The McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum poll found that Americans' knowledge of television shows such as "The Simpsons" and "American Idol" far surpasses their familiarity with the First Amendment.

Only one of the 1,000 adults polled in the telephone survey could name all five freedoms guaranteed under the First Amendment. Yet more than one in five (22 percent) could identify all five major characters in Matt Groening's cartoon family.

Similarly, only 8 people in 100 could name at least three First Amendment freedoms. Four in 10 surveyed (40 percent) could name two of the three judges on the star-making show "American Idol," and one in four (25 percent) could name all three.

From this data, and others generated by the survey, they conclude this:
"These survey results clearly demonstrate that many Americans don't have an understanding of the freedoms they regularly enjoy," Dave Anderson, the Chicago museum's executive director, said in a written statement.
Is that, though, a reasonable conclusion?

First, let me say that it is my sense that the level of education in this regard is poorer than it was when I was in school. That said, I don't think such a survey would have had different results 20 years ago, or 40, or 60. Even in the midst of learning this stuff, I could certainly quote Bob Dylan more readily than the US Constitution. It's a question of what people connect with day to day, and that's clearly pop culture more than it's a constitutional document, however important.

Is it really that people don't know what freedoms we're assured (or were, pre-Bush)? Or is it more that they just can't cite the chapter and verse that assures us? "What freedoms does the first amendment guarantee?" is a very different question from, "Do you, as an American citizen, have the right to petition the government?" Many people write their senators and congressional representatives, and many more know that they can — many more than the one in 1000 surveyed who could tell you that the first amendment gives us that right.

How important is it that we be able to make the citation, compared with knowing the gist of it? How many remember the name Gavrilo Princip? Few, I think, despite that his actions are credited with triggering World War I. And I'd rather see people understand and remember the issues behind the war than details such as that. Who were Donna Rice, Rosemary Woods, Mata Hari? You can find them in an encyclopedia (or, now, in Wikipedia); how much more important is it to understand what events they were involved in?

Legend has it that Albert Einstein didn't remember his own phone number, saying that he didn't like to clutter his mind with things he could readily look up.

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