Monday, March 21, 2011

Notes on Politics: Are You a Knowledgeable Citizen?

As we have watched horrific and violent news play out across the globe – armed conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and now in Libya where U.S. soldiers are risking their lives – as well as observe the multi-pronged disaster unfolding in Japan (earthquake, tsunami, potential meltdown of damaged nuclear plants), government officials have been called upon to make a number of important decisions. Here in the United States, our officials must decide whether we should continue to put our troops in harm’s way to hold Gadhafi’s army at bay (or send a barrage of missiles in his general direction). They need to determine when to completely remove our troops from Iraq – meaning everyone outta there – and what to do in Afghanistan, where soldiers have been engaged for going on a decade. Never mind the whole national debt issue . . .

And we, the citizens, are the ones who put those officials there. We do so by listing to presidential, congressional and senate candidates’ promises, examine their backgrounds, policy stands and decide whose judgment we’d prefer to rely upon in moments of crisis like we're facing now.

But what if the people who are doing the voting have no idea what the heck is going on in the world? Only 61.6 percent of eligible voters voted in the 2008 presidential election, but are they among the people who know at least a little something about current events? Newsweek/The Daily Beast has come out with some statistics that really make me shudder and wonder about our citizens' grasp of American history and the workings of our government.

Newsweek got 1,000 U.S. citizens to take the U.S. citizenship test. The results sure are dispiriting:

“[Twenty-nine] percent couldn’t name the vice president. Seventy-three percent couldn’t correctly say why we fought the Cold War. Forty-four percent were unable to define the Bill of Rights. And 6 percent couldn’t even circle Independence Day on a calendar.”

Among the citizenship test’s other questions: What was the Constitutional Convention? Who was the president during World War I? With which countries did we fight during World War II? How many House seats are in Congress? What did Susan B. Anthony do?

Good grief. I’d be willing to wager that the 29 percent of the people who didn’t know that Joe Biden is our vice president are more likely to know who Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber are, and probably spend oodles of time on Facebook.

Wait. It gets worse.

“In March 2009, the European Journal of Communication asked citizens of Britain, Denmark, Finland, and the U.S. to answer questions on international affairs,” Newsweek reported. “The Europeans clobbered us. Sixty-eight percent of Danes, 75 percent of Brits, and 76 percent of Finns could, for example, identify the Taliban, but only 58 percent of Americans managed to do the same—even though we’ve led the charge in Afghanistan. It was only the latest in a series of polls that have shown us lagging behind our First World peers.”

What’s the answer? Mandatory civics classes in schools? Maybe trying to persuade people to turn off mindless reality show programming and save some brain cells for the news rather than The Situation and Snookie? If we started expecting, as a rite of passage, that entering adulthood means that people are expected to be engaged citizens, not people who exist only in their own bubble, disconnected and uninformed about the activities of their local, state and federal government officials at all levels, would that make any difference? Perhaps we should make Schoolhouse Rock videos regular viewing for our school children, and gently suggest that their parents watch along them too? Or does Charlie Sheen have to run for vice president for folks to start paying attention?

If you took the test, how do you think you’d do?

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