Trustees | General Education

Ignorance Does Not Lead to Election Bliss

Perhaps the country’s political state owes itself to the failures of its education system.
THE ATLANTIC   |  November 8, 2016 by Jonathan R. Cole

While there surely are many varied causes for the current American political situation, one among those is the relative ignorance of basic American history, scientific, technological knowledge, and what some refer to as “civics” among a large sector of our population. It is testimony to the failure of the country’s education system that a high percentage of the voting-age population is simply ignorant of basic facts—knowledge that is necessary to act reasonably and rationally in the political process.

This void isn’t limited to those with little education or those without significant professional achievements. It is telling, for example, that in 2009, 89 percent of those who took a test on civic knowledge expressed confidence they could pass it; in fact, 83 percent would have failed.

In short, as I’ve written in the past, the public’s limited knowledge—or even what the psychologist William James called “acquaintance with knowledge”—is neither monopolized by the poorly educated nor found only among certain social classes. This illiteracy has created a void that is easily filled by those with anti-science, anti-intellectual, and demagogic leanings.

To immediately cite the absurd, one 2016 presidential candidate and former two-time governor of New Mexico, Gary Johnson, had no idea what was going on in Aleppo, Syria, where a great human tragedy involving the United States is unfolding before the world’s eyes. Moreover, asked by the commentator, Chris Matthews, to name his favorite leader of any nation in the world, Johnson could not name one, and after a pregnant pause said he was having an “Aleppo moment.” Along the same lines, Tony Schwartz, who was Donald Trump’s ghostwriter for The Art of the Deal, suggests that Trump apparently rarely, if ever, reads books of any kind, much less historical works. No wonder he turns out to be woefully ignorant of history and science, or of the near-scientific consensus about global climate change and our seeming determination to destroy our planet.

When this kind of ignorance reaches the level of presidential aspirants, it must give Americans pause. Where does the ignorance originate? Why has it become so pervasive in the United States today? Can the U.S. have meaningful elections if its citizens have a paucity of civic knowledge and history that might allow them to make informed decisions? A significant part of the answer lies, I believe, in the failures of the American education system.

Without addressing how to remedy this situation, consider some of its manifestation and possible causes—a few illustrations of the problem as reportedin The Atlantic in 2010:

Americans were more able to identify Michael Jackson as the composer of a number of songs than to know that the Bill of Rights was the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

When asked in what century the American Revolution took place and whether the Civil War, the War of 1812, and the Emancipation Proclamation preceded or followed the Revolution, more than 30 percent of respondents answered that question incorrectly.

And more than a third of Americans did not know that the Bill of Rights guarantees a right to a trial by jury. Meanwhile, 40 percent mistakenly thought that it secures the right to vote.

Things have not gotten better more recently. In a study of historical knowledge carried out in 2015 for the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), more than 80 percent of college seniors at 55 top-ranked institutions would have received a grade of either a D or F. Here’s an overview of some of the 2015 results, which were based on standard high-school civics curricula:

Only about 20 percent knew that James Madison was the father of the Constitution, while over 60 percent gave the title to Thomas Jefferson.

More than 40 percent of college graduates did not know that the Constitution grants the power to declare war to Congress.

Roughly half of college students could not correctly state the length of the terms of members of the Senate or the House of Representatives.

Finally, consider the eye-opening findings of a July 2016 ACTA study on the inclusion of American history in the curricula of the leading colleges and universities in the United States. The survey found that only about half of the students at the top 50 colleges and universities could identify the purpose of The Federalist Papers, and only 22 percent knew that the phrase, “government of the people, by the people, for the people” could be found in the Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. That these are questions many Atlantic readers probably wouldn’t be able to answer confidently attests to the fact that the dearth of historical knowledge is a matter of education and not intelligence.

Why does this ignorance exist among even “elite” college students today? I’ll start by pointing out that, according to the ACTA study, only seven of the nation’s top 25 liberal-arts colleges require history majors to take a course on U.S. history (the report does not note the proportion of history majors that elect to take a course in American history); the same is true of only four of the 25 top national universities (such as the Ivies, Stanford, and the University of Chicago) and just 14 of the top 25 public ones. If few of those who actually major in history are required to take such courses, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the results of surveys of the general student population seem remarkable. While colleges often reason that these statistics are indicative of efforts to maximize the choices available to students, these efforts apparently happen at the expense of knowledge about the history of the United States.

Turning to scientific and technological literacy among Americans yields perhaps even more startling ignorance. The public must weigh in on critical ethical and moral issues—human cloning, genetically modified crops, the production of greenhouse gases, to name a few—that require at least a modicum of literacy in science and technology, knowledge that is infrequently found among the country’s citizens. Consider just two illustrative findings:

More than half of the adults questioned in a 2009 survey from the California Academy of Science did not know that it took a year for the Earth to orbit the sun.

In 2012, the National Science Foundation found that slightly more than half of surveyed Americans said astrology was “not at all scientific.”

Of course, when it comes to civic affairs in the country, it’s possible that the evident lack of knowledge is overwhelmed by other social and economic interests within the public. If individuals feel that they are being excluded from the benefits of American prosperity—if they feel that there is little chance for them or their children to rise in the world, that the government refuses to take action on matters that are of great importance to them—they may vote on the basis of these interests. If so, then perhaps knowledge of history, science, technology, and other matters that provide the population with critical-reasoning skills and a basis for choice would be one of only many other factors influencing their decisions.

But it’s undeniable that the state of America’s education system, from the small classrooms in rural areas teaching high-school students to the Ivy League universities educating the world’s future leaders, is contributing to the country’s political state.

Take the way the U.S. treats its public-school teachers. Surveys and statements by public officials speak to the critical need for a highly educated workforce—for the national economy as well as for individual participation in American democracy. A 2013 Gallup poll showed, for example, that 70 percent of Americans believed that a college education was very important—up from 36 percent when the survey was first taken in the late 1970s. Yet the U.S. doesn’t pay teachers well compared with most other professions, and it does little to sustain their motivation to continue as educators.

Consequently, many teaching positions are filled by people with limited classroom training or educators who aren’t experts in the field they’re being hired to teach. In 1993, as I have previously written, the science historian and former physics professor Gerald Holton noted that “we are losing 13 mathematics and science teachers for each one entering the profession.” According to National Center for Education Statistics data from the 2007-08 school year, roughly 70 percent of math teachers in high schools majored in math, but only about 60 percent were certified in the subject; almost 30 percent hadn’t majored in math, and only 16 percent of these were certified.

Which leads me to another phenomenon contributing to the widespread dearth of knowledge in the country: the education system’s obsession, as I’ve found in my own research, with labeling youngsters as scientifically “able” or “talented” at an early age. Most often this labeling is based upon how rapidly students can obtain correct answers to questions when the answers are already known—not on how they respond to the kinds of intriguing questions for which the answer isn’t known, the kinds that are often key to gauging scientific talent.

Therefore, many of America’s very talented students come to believe that they have little aptitude for science and engineering—eventually moving into professions far removed from the sciences. Many never take a science course after they have completed the final requirement in high school—even though the 20th century was distinguished by the extraordinary contributions of science and technology to contemporary culture and the economic well-being of Americans. What they know about science and technology must, then, come from various news and social-media sources and from whatever teaching they may have received in American history during high school or in college.

If someone today is ignorant of science and technology—and of its implications for the average citizen—it is likely to come from what he read or was taught through American-history courses. In the late 1990s, I examined the content of a number of the leading American history textbooks used in high schools and colleges. These books, which were authored by world-class historians, were almost totally devoid of discussions of science. I contrasted space devoted to science and technology with that to contemporary culture and the arts and found, as just one example, that much more discussion was devoted to, say, the singer Madonna than to James Watson and Francis Crick, who discovered the structure of the DNA molecule. The same was true when it came to scores of other scientific discoveries.

In fact, in these massive textbooks a few pages at most were dedicated to science—and when that was the case, it was mostly to a brief discussion of the discovery of atomic power and the atom bomb. In this great century of American science, a stranger would likely never know from these texts that science and technology had played a central role in the growth of American society.

Have things in the textbook world changed since the 1990s? To answer this question, I’ve recently reviewed, in a cursory fashion to be sure, the content of some of today’s leading high-school texts for AP American-history courses as well as some widely used in American colleges (although the leading schools rarely rely on textbooks). One of the most widely used and highly praised is The American Pageant, by the renowned historians David M. Kennedy, Lizabeth Cohen, and Thomas Bailey. This turns out to be one of the most popular texts used to prepare high-school students for AP examinations; I looked at the 13th edition of a couple of years ago.

It is a big, well-written book, covering all of American history. Because its range is so great, though, it’s depth is limited. And it provides only scanty references to the Constitution’s Bill of Rights and to science and technology in the 20th century. A review of the nearly 400 pages devoted to the 20th century reveals two pages devoted to scientists and engineers as “makers of America.” The information it provides is good stuff: It notes that American scientists “have repeatedly made significant contributions to the life of the nation”; it discusses, very briefly, the move to Big Science in America after World War II and the role that research universities have made in those discoveries; it mentions the Human Genome project and how industry along with universities spurred developments in communications and information technology.

But it says very little about the thousands of discoveries that have been central to American economic growth and well-being. In comparison to the space devoted to political events, social movements, wars, crises of one kind or another, there is almost no attention to science and technology. This is a first-rate textbook, but a student studying from it would gain little knowledge about American science and technology and more specifically the thousands of discoveries made at America’s universities that have had a critical role in shaping the nation—nor would they get a sense of the important aforementioned ethical and moral questions that remain unaddressed.

To cite one more history-textbook example: Howard Zinn’s enormously popular, if controversial, A People’s History of the United States, which has sold over 2 million copies, has an even greater paucity of discussion of scientific and technological discoveries and breakthroughs in the 20th century. If this is where America’s students are largely obtaining their knowledge of science, they are obtaining very little of it.

James Madison put the current dilemma clearly in focus almost 200 years ago, when he wrote in an 1822 letter to W. T. Barry: “A popular Government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” The American people are not doing this today, and the results are evident in the cracks appearing in the country’s democracy.


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