U.S. Government 101

With the U.S. Presidential Election and Veterans Day still in the rearview mirror, it seems a good time to discuss our national knowledge – or lack of knowledge – about civics.

You may be familiar with late-night talk show host Jay Leno’s “jaywalking” episodes wherein a guy with a microphone asks easy questions to (apparently) random passersby, often capturing the ignorance of the public to comic (albeit tragic) effect.

I don’t know to what extent these episodes are staged or edited (for every display of ignorance, perhaps a number of others get the answer right) – but from my research and teaching experience, I doubt it’s difficult to find uninformed people. As I write this, I realize I may sound snobby; but lo, we’re talking about very basic, easy questions here – such as in this example . . .

Not too long ago, I saw a little clip (I cannot recall where or which channel) in which an interviewer approached a woman and asked what she did for a living; she was an elementary education teacher. His next question: “How many Senators are in the U.S. Congress?” She quickly spat, “I have no idea.”

What really disturbed me, other than the fact that every teacher in the country ought to know immediately how many U.S. Senators we have, was the lack of shame. She not only didn’t know, she grew hostile at someone imagining she should know . . . yet she proudly calls herself a teacher.

Yes: teachers, middle-school-and-older students, and all citizens in a voting Constitutional Republic: you should know these kinds of easy questions about your government system, and if you don’t, you must take steps to learn! Fortunately, that’s not too difficult, even from your sofa, with selected online resources. You might start your journey by browsing the website of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute American Civic Literacy Program. Read its interesting yet sobering studies (on the front page) and, for real fun and to see where your own weak spots lie, take its “Civic Knowledge Quiz” (see buttons on the left-hand menu of the site), “Civic Engagement Assessment,” or “Full Civic Literacy Exam.”

(Notable George Washington quote posted on the site: “In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.”)

Another worthwhile resource, CIRCLE (The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement), “conducts research on civic education in schools, colleges, and community settings and on young Americans’ voting and political participation, service, activism, media use, and other forms of civic engagement.”

Going back to basics, here’s one more good reference page for civics: the U.S. National Archives’ “America’s Historical Documents.” See and download images of (and read more about) such essentials as the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, Emancipation Proclamation, and more.

Image via U.S. National Archives’ “America’s Historical Documents” page linked above