Wednesday, November 26, 2008

dumb cits?

The newspapers are giving coverage to a civics survey that purports to show, as one commentator says, that most Americans are too ignorant to vote. The research is by a group called the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which (surprise!) has an agenda. The organization celebrates free markets, civil society, the American Experience, and the achievement of national security. It aims to "further in successive generations of college youth a better understanding of the values and institutions that sustain a free and humane society." And in "educating for liberty" it hopes
to identify the best and the brightest college students and to nurture in these future leaders the American ideal of ordered liberty. To accomplish this goal, ISI seeks to enhance the rising generation's knowledge of our nation's founding principles — limited government, individual liberty, personal responsibility, the rule of law, market economy, and moral norms.
It's also no surprise that news coverage focuses on the ISI's press release (pdf) and gives little or no context. I didn't find any articles that gave useful background info on ISI or its aims. This is discouraging. Biased research is unavoidable, of course, but (I believe) reporters should help readers understand how it might have entered into survey summary that comes their way via eye-catching press release. Unlike (admittedly harassed and dead-line besieged) reporters, Bloggers do often give background about and criticize what they consider to be biased surveys, and (often-enough) their own argument-skewing biases are both obvious and discountable. (A recent example: New EDF poll statistically invalid due to biased questions, posted on Scholars and Rogues, November 14, 2008, by Brian Angliss.)

Given the time constraints on reporters, wouldn't it be nice to have an online database of research reports like the consumer databases of organizations such as Consumers Checkbook or the myth-busting of the Urban Legends Reference Pages? I searched, but couldn't locate anything of that nature. (Again, I'm not trying to maintain that such organizations are themselves free of bias, but accounting for bias in them is not difficult and, since they are numerous, comparisons are possible.)

At the very least, it would be nice if some reporters, anyway, would give urls for the organizations that carry out studies they report, for the survey methodologies, and for the survey questionnaires themselves.

It's not too hard to find the ISI home page. Go there and you'll find the release of course (pdf, as I said) and a full page on the survey itself, along with the questionnaire, which you can take on the spot.

You'll see the bias without difficulty. The questions focus on the organization's agenda and carry a strong flavor of Adam Smith and the US Founding Fathers. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, so long as it's obvious (as it is). Although it needs to be taken into account, I wouldn't say the bias invalidates conclusions that are being drawn from the published results, although it's a bit excessive to say that Americans are too ignorant to vote.

You probably realize there's nothing new in complaints about the low level of civic knowledge in democracies. Still, the results of this survey seem to suggest things are worse than they were. The student reporters for a collegiate paper give some reasons: academic curricula have broadened. There's much less emphasis on what used to be core subjects, like American History, Political Economy, and civics in general. And, you have to ask yourself, (a) is this wrong, (b) is the survey respondents' ignorance a real danger to the US, and (c) are things truly worse than they used to be? In giving my answers to these questions I acknowledge that as a student of history and enthusiast of the Enlightenment & 18th c. history, I'm myself biased.

If you put your quiz score in the comments and I'll tell you mine. OK? (If you're not in the target audience for the survey -- US cits -- you're off the hook of course, but responses welcome all the same.)


I've been particularly concerned about the shortcomings of news reports on survey results since the first appearance of the NEA wolf-crying on the decline in recreational reading in America.

Here are some links on this topic.

Literary Reading in Dramatic Decline, According to National Endowment for the Arts Survey

A brilliant critique of the NEA Reading report

More Responses to NEA Reading Report

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