A Philosopher's Blog

Ignorance, Revisited

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 29, 2011
This political cartoon (attributed to Benjamin...

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As Americans should now, folks who want to become citizens have to go through a process that involves taking a test consisting of 10 questions from a bank of 100 questions in 5 categories related to American history and government. To pass, a person must get 6 out of 10 right.

As is done every so often, folks at Newsweek decided to see how Americans would do on the tests. As always, a significant percentage (38%) of Americans failed the test. This did not surprise me at all. I have heard of other instances in which Americans were tested and I also have seen how lacking even college students are in knowledge of the basic facts of American history and government.

When looking at the breakdown of the results, there are some interesting numbers. 67% of men passed the test while only 58% of women did. This is, no doubt, due to the patriarchal nature of the questions. Joking aside, it is certainly interesting that men did significantly better. This could very well be due to a difference in interests. In general, men still seem to find history and politics more interesting than women do.

A rather unsurprising result is that 75% of those earning $100,000 or more passed while a dismal 40% of those making $20,000 or less passed. This most likely reflected the degree of education possessed by the people in question. After all, people who make $100,000 or more a year most likely finished high school and have at least a B.A./B.S. thus picking up at least some knowledge. There is also the fact that high earners probably have somewhat more interest in the subject material of the test. However, it is rather disappointing that the results were still rather poor.

One interesting set of results involves the success rate of people based on their political views. The Newsweek results found that the closer a person matched their party’s label (conservative or liberal), the better they did. In the case of Republicans, 70% of the conservatives passed followed by 61% of the moderates and 55% of the liberals. In the case of the Democrats, 62% of the liberals and moderates passed, while 36% of the conservative Democrats managed to pass.

These results seem to indicate that Americans who are more closely aligned with the professed ideology of their parties are better informed than those who are not. So, for example, while conservative Republicans seem vastly more informed (in this context) than a conservative Democrat, they are only somewhat better informed than liberal or moderate Democrats. This can be taken as indicating the the political middle is less informed than the left and right edges, with the conservative Democrats being the worst of the lot.  The results are, in any case, disappointing across the board.

In terms of voters, 68% of those who voted regularly passed the test. This indicates that a significant percentage of voters are making decisions that are likely to be poorly grounded in an understanding of American history and how the system works. Of course, this probably matches quite well with the ignorance of elected officials (nicely illustrated by Michele Bachman’s recent flub).

I have two main points to make about these results. The first is that they can be taken as a sign that a significant percentage of Americans are ignorant of our history and political system. Assuming that this knowledge is important to making informed political choices, this bodes ill for the country. The second is that this raises concerns about the fairness of the citizenship tests. After all, if 38% of the Americans tested failed, then it might be that the test is actually unfair when it comes to determining who is suitable to be an American citizen. To use an analogy, if 38% of the graduates of a school failed the admissions test to that school, this would lead one to wonder about the quality of the school or the fairness of the admission tests. Likewise for the citizenship test and the quality of American education (and the quality of Americans).

For those who might be wondering, I scored 100% on the Newsweek test. But, I majored in political science and philosophy, plus I am a history buff, all of which which gives me some unfair advantages.

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4 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on March 29, 2011 at 6:25 am

    Is there any extra credit?

  2. frk said, on March 29, 2011 at 8:50 am

    . . .75% of those earning $100,000 or more passed while a dismal 40% of those making $20,000 or less passed.This most likely reflected the degree of education possessed by the people in question.”

    You can devote sixteen or more university and grad school years hurling the most carefully selected, expensive, steaming lumps of the highest quality shit against the wall, but only 75% sticks.

  3. [...] Ignorance, Revisited (aphilosopher.wordpress.com) [...]


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