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Houston, We Have a Problem…

By Sheila Kennedy on July 17, 2015 in Civic Blog
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In my periodic rants about the state of civic knowledge, I’ve frequently cited the results of a test periodically administered by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) as evidence of the American public’s worrisome deficit of civic literacy.

As troubling as that deficit of public knowledge is–as much as it contributes to political polarization and our inability to hold government actors accountable to constitutional standards– another outcome of ISI’s research should really terrify us.

Elected officials’ scores were lower than those of the general public in almost every category.

Of the 2,508 People surveyed, 164 say they have held an elected government office at least once in their life. Their average score on the civic literacy test is 44%, compared to 49% for those who have not held an elected office. Officeholders are less likely than other respondents to correctly answer 29 of the 33 test questions. This table shows the “knowledge gap” for each question: the difference between the percentage of common citizens who answered correctly and the percentage of officeholders who answered correctly.

Think about that for a minute.

Manufacturers don’t hire workers who don’t know how to make the product. Athletes who don’t understand the rules of their sport are soon gone. A lawyer who doesn’t know the rules of procedure and the precedents governing his practice area is likely to get sued for malpractice. Surely we have a right to expect our public officials to have a basic acquaintance with, and understanding of, the Constitution they swear to uphold.

I suppose ISI’s findings shouldn’t come as a shock; those of us who are watching the political spectacle that is the run-up to the 2016 Presidential election have seen plentiful evidence that–even among the people who presume to run for the highest office in the land–a number appear to be woefully ignorant of America’s history, philosophy and constitutional principles.

Perhaps we should test candidates for political office for basic constitutional competence before we allow them to run.


Sheila HeadshotSheila Suess Kennedy, J.D. is the Professor of Law and Public Policy in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis and former Director of the Center for Civic Literacy. She is the Executive Editor for the Journal of Civic Literacy.  This post was originally published on the blog, sheilakennedy.net and is republished here with the permission of the author.

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Whitney FieldsView all posts by Whitney Fields

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