Freedom from Responsibility Preview part Deux

 (Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

In the end more than they wanted freedom, they wanted security. When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society but for society to give to them, when the freedom they wished was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free.

-Edward Gibbon

Last week we had our first sneak peak at Freedom from Responsibility.

Today, more details about the results. The Goldwater Institute randomly drew 10 questions from the United States citzenship exam item bank. We hired a survey firm to interview a sample of both Arizona public and private school high school students.

The questions for neither the citizenship test nor our survey were multiple choice. When you are asked “Who was the first President?” you must answer “Washington” in order to receive credit. Applicants for citizenship must get six out of the ten questions correct to pass. A recent trial of a slightly reformatted exam found that 92.4% of citizenship applicants passed the test on the first try.

Charles N. Quigley, writing for the Progressive Policy Institute, explained the critical nature of civic knowledge:

From this nation’s earliest days, leaders such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Adams recognized that even the well-designed institutions are not sufficient to maintain a free society. Ultimately, a vibrant democracy must rely on the knowledge, skill, and virtues of its citizens and their elected officials. Education that imparts that knowledge and skill and fosters those virtues is essential to the preservation andimprovement of American constitutional democracy and civic life.

Paul D. Houston, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, also put the issue in focus:

If you look back in history, you will find the core mission of public education in America was to create places of civic virtue for our children and for our society. As education undergoes the rigors of re-examination and the need for reinvention, it is crucial to remember that the key role of public schools is to preserve democracy and, that as battered as we might be, our mission is central to the future of this country.

Here are the 10 questions randomly selected, and their answers:

1.What is the supreme law of the land?Answer: The Constitution

2. What do we call the first 10 amendments to the Constitution?

Answer: the Bill of Rights

3. What are the two parts of the U.S. Congress?

Answer: Senate and House

4. How many Justices are on the Supreme Court?

Answer: Nine

5. Who wrote the Declaration of Independence?

Answer: Jefferson

6. What ocean is on the East Coast of the United States?

Answer: Atlantic

7. What are the two major political parties in the United States?

Answer: Democratic and Republican

8. We elect a U.S. Senator for how many years?Answer: Six

9 . Who was the first President of the United States?Answer: Washington

10. Who is in charge of the Executive Branch?Answer: The President

A majority of Arizona public high school students got only one of these questions correct, with 58% correctly identifying the Atlantic Ocean as being off the east coast of the United States, with 42% unable to do so. It was all downhill from there. 29.5% of students identified the Constitution as the supreme law of the land, 25% of students identified the Bill or Rights as the first 10 amendments to the Constitution (12% said they were called “The Constitution” and 16% “The Declaration of Independence.”)

Twenty three percent of Arizona public high schoolers identified the House and Senate as the chambers of Congress. Nine point four percent that the Supreme Court has nine justices. Only 25% of students correctly identified Thomas Jefferson as the author of the Declaration of Independence. An almost majority of 49.6 percent identified the two major political parties, only 14.5% answered that Senators are elected for six year terms. Finally, only 26.5% of students correctly identified George Washington was the first President. Other guesses included John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Barack Obama.

Only 26% could identify the President as being in charge of the Executive Branch. All in all, only 3.5% of public school students passed the test by getting six or more items correct. That’s 40 students out of a sample of 1,134 district students.

There were no major differences in performance based on grade (Seniors did approximately as poorly as Freshmen) nor by ethnicity. Profound ignorance is quite equally distributed in large measure across students in the public school system.

Two obvious questions to ask: is it fair to give this test? In order to answer, I examined the Arizona state standards for 8th grade social studies, which all or nearly all of these students will have taken. These standards are included as an Appendix in the study. What they show is that students are supposed to have learned about John Locke, the Mayflower Compact, the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution, Checks and Balances, Seperation of Powers, etc. etc. etc.

Everything they ought to have needed, in other words, to have passed this test. If, that is, they had actually learned any of that material in practice, which they obviously did not.

Second, I gave the test to my own 1st and 2nd grade sons. They both got 3 answers correct. We’ll be working on that. In so doing, they outscored about 40% of the Arizona high school sample, and tied or exceeded about 60 percent.

Charter school kids performed far better but still terribly- with a passing rate about twice as high as the public school kids. Private school students passed at a rate four times higher, which ultimately is both much better and still pathetic.

I had a very difficult time writing a conclusion to this study. More on that for the next post, but you tell me: if you were an Arizona lawmaker what would you do about this?

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28 Responses to Freedom from Responsibility Preview part Deux

  1. This is a great idea for a study. I can’t wait to read it in full.

  2. Greg Forster says:

    Private school students passed at a rate four times higher


    if you were an Arizona lawmaker what would you do about this?

    Introduce legislation for universal vouchers.


  3. matthewladner says:


    I’m all for that, but when only 13.8% of your private school students pass the test, it doesn’t seem adequate.

    • Greg Forster says:

      Matt, do you have a pair of binoculars I can borrow? You’ve moved the goalposts so far I’ve lost sight of them.

      Seriously, private schools did four times better even in the absence of a real education market that would drive up their performance with radically stronger competitive incentives than the ones they have now. How well will they do when we finally get a real market?

  4. Patrick says:

    Is that Greenday? And if so, why did you choose these anarcho socialists (a term that is self contradictory in my opinion)? Is it because Greenday knows nothing about American civics?

  5. Matthewladner says:


    That picture was from a video Greenday made for a song called “American Idiot.”

    Having said that, I have no idea why I used it…

  6. brett says:

    Shortly after reading this post, I hopped over to MSNBC and caught news of Michael Jackson. This was at the end of the article:

    “No joke. King of Pop is no more. Wow,” Michael Harris, 36, of New York City, read from a text message a friend sent to his telephone. “It’s like when Kennedy was assassinated. I will always remember being in Times Square when Michael Jackson died.”

    I don’t know whether to be appalled at his sense of proportion, or happy to see that he knows something about a former president.

  7. Brian says:

    I can’t understand how more students knew the Atlantic ocean but not George Washington. George Washington is such an easy answer, and I wouldn’t expect Arizona kids to be able to get the right ocean. Maybe the problem was that most ocean answers had a 50% chance at being right.

    Michael Jackson is definitely more important to the world than JFK. So what?

  8. allen says:

    Since surveys like this have popped up with some regularity over the past couple of decades, why would an easily-ignorable survey such is this induce legislators to ignore the political power of the public education system to take some substantive action?

    To answer your question directly, nothing.

    • Greg Forster says:

      Allen, the question was not what will the legislators do, but what would you do if you were a legislator. And I suspect that you wouldn’t simply do nothing if you were a legislator, since you seem to have some strongly held and well considered policy views and they don’t line up very well with the status quo!

  9. Matthewladner says:


    You of course make a valid point, one that Andrew Coulson made in his book Market Education, that even today’s private schools exist in the long shadow of the public education system, and can often comfortably serve niches simply by being “better” than the public schools.


    Should I infer that you believe that the public education establishment wants students to be utterly ignorant in civics?

    • Greg Forster says:

      For the record, I didn’t steal the idea from Andrew Coulson, I stole it from Milton Friedman.

      What I stole from Andrew Coulson was the title of my study “Monopoly versus Markets.” (OK, I didn’t really steal it since I didn’t know at the time that Andrew had done a report by the same title a decade earlier, but it’s funny to say I did.)

      And if you’re asking whether the establishment wants students to be utterly ignorant of civics, I would say subjectively, no, but actions not only speak louder than words, but louder than self-delusions.

  10. allen says:

    Right you are, Greg. I get so tired of arguments about public education that completely ignore the political nature of public education, preferring instead to treat the public education system as if it resides on some politics-free plane of existence, that I answered that question as it would be answered by an incumbent legislator.

    If I were a legislator I’d take a page from the left and find a catchy name for my policy to expand the number of charters.

    Perpending “smart” is a popular ploy and, I must confess, it’s already been appropriated by some Michigan politicians who want to put the charter school movement under the thumb of the state board of education. So I guess, at least for Michigan, “smart cap” wouldn’t work.

    Increasing the number of charters would provide one of the necessities of a free market: choice.

    The other necessity of a free market is information and that’s where computers may, at long last, come into their own in education.

    Michigan has the MEAP and despite it’s serious flaws it’s served as a something of a goad, humiliating various boards of education to the extent that’s possible.

    One of the problems with the MEAP though is that the test is given at relatively long intervals and even then sucks up a whole day. Computer and communication technology would allow such tests to be given in much more manageable increments during the school year. As the data’s collected and processed it gets popped up on a web page displaying the school’s standing via various comparative measures, i.e. state-wide, county-wide, compared to schools with similar demographics, compared to last year and whatever other means of comparing the school’s performance could be dreamed up. It’s all grist for the the computerized mill so let a thousand metrics bloom.

    So my other legislative proposal would be fund the development of a state-wide, Internet-based testing regime.

    With a system like that in place it would be simple to slip in a “who’s buried in Grant’s tomb”-type question occasionally.

    Oh yeah, since Bill Gates is probably getting pretty tired of funding edu-crap – he’s grown weary of the “small school” golden calf and School Of the Future’s looking pretty dystopian – he might be interested in tossing a few bucks at the real Teacher, Class and School of the Year. After all, I’ll have information in hand about the excellence of the school so big Bill won’t be funding a promise but rewarding an achievement.

    I’d be sure to get plenty of photos of me and Bill shaking hands, him handing over the certificate of achievement that sends the whole school off to Paris or some such for a week.

    Then I’d run for governor.

    Matthewladner wrote:

    Should I infer that you believe that the public education establishment wants students to be utterly ignorant in civics?

    No, of course not. The public education establishment doesn’t “want” anything any more then a blizzard “wants” to be cold. But like a weather phenomenon the public education system is governed by rules that compel its behavior.

    One of those rules was the complete lack of any institutional accountability. No one in the public education system, at least until relatively recent times, had an explicit responsibility to ensure that their bit of the public education system was operating efficiently.

    Teachers didn’t have to teach. Principals didn’t have to princip and administrators didn’t have to administrate at least as measured by the educational attainments of their particular piece of the educational pie. Something out of the common ought to have been predicted but there’s a powerful desire to believe that the public education system is being run properly and responsibly. The emperor’s tailor would understand that desire when crafting the emporer’s new, spring wardrobe.

    It’s not so much that public school teachers, etc., want kids to be ignorant of civics but that the public education system is free to decide what constitutes being knowledgeable about civics. If that includes leaving kids so ignorant of basic geographical and historical facts that they have difficulty operating in the modern world, so what? It’s not like anyone’s going to lose their job as a result.

    Dang, that was more then I wanted to write.

  11. [...] This news from the Goldwater Institute’s Matt Ladner about the basic civic illiteracy of Arizona high school students is depressing, especially a week before our nation’s birthday. A simple 10-question quiz failed by the overwhelming majority of students. [...]

  12. Stuart Buck says:

    Great idea. I’m reminded of this classic Zogby poll from 2006:

    When asked to name two of Snow White’s Seven Dwarfs and two of the nine U.S. Supreme Court Justices, 77% of Americans polled were able to identify two dwarfs, while only 24% could name two Supreme Court Justices.

    * * *

    When knowledge of classic literature was compared to popular animated series, 60% of poll respondents were able to identify Homer as the father of Bart Simpson, while only 21% could name one of Homer’s epic Greek poems. Knowledge of government did not fare much better with 73% of those polled able to name all three of The Three Stooges, while only 42% could name the three branches of government.

    * * *

    Surprisingly, despite record-breaking ratings, when asked who the newest American Idol is as of May 2006, only 23% of those polled named Taylor Hicks. Still, while that may seem low, it was double the percentage of those who recalled which Supreme Court Judge was confirmed in January 2006. Only 11% answered “Samuel Alito.”

  13. If I were an Arizona Lawmaker what would I do?

    1) Consider finding a way to avoid budget cuts that would further undermine my education system (new taxes, perhaps?)

    2) Urge my federal government to give science and social studies standing under NCLB

  14. Brian says:

    Sounds to me like classic literature did just fine. 77% of Americans are familiar with the work of the Brothers Grimm from the late 1700s. Impressive, right? And maybe if Homer had come up with a better story his work would be represented by a good Disney flick instead of a minivan.

    Seriously, though, I’m skeptical of most of these measures we are talking about. It doesn’t matter if anyone knows the justice’s names. It might make elitist trivia nerds feel special to be able to name them, but when it comes to good citizenship I think we have to remember that these knowledge “tests” are using proxy outcomes. We assume that not knowing Alito’s name is evidence of wide knowledge gaps about real important things. I’m not so sure. Don’t get me wrong, I think people ought to know a bit more than they do, but these are loaded polls. And besides, you can learn almost everything you need to know about American politics by watching the Simpsons.

  15. [...] become a citizen, immigrants must answer six of 10 basic civics questions, such as: Who wrote the Declaration of Independence? What do we call the first 10 amendments to the [...]

  16. [...] at June 27th, 2009 / // To become a citizen, immigrants must answer six of 10 basic civics questions, such as: Who wrote the Declaration of Independence? What do we call the first 10 amendments to the [...]

  17. Stuart Buck says:

    So the fact that 58% of Americans can’t name the three branches of government is just supposed to be a proxy for their lack of knowledge about something else (which is what?), but it’s not a good proxy because why? I don’t get it.

  18. Dennis Fermoyle says:

    Why should those students care about that stuff? Do we, as a society, really think it’s important? Turn on the TV “news channels” today, and what do you see? Anything about the health care debate? No. Anything about the climate control bill in Congress? No. Anything about what’s going on in Iraq or Afghanistan? Forget it. All they are covering–and I do mean all–is the death of Michael Jackson. Has there been any recent news about his death today? No. But we have to see interviews with Jackson’s so-called friends, fans, shrinks, etc., etc., etc.. Every aspect of his life and death are being analyzed, re-analyzed, and re-analyzed again. When I turn on my computer I go immediately to Dell Portal. Here are their two top headlines:

    Jackson also left legacy as cultural phenomenon

    Chopra: Drug concerns with Jackson since 2005

    The guy was a pop singer for crying out loud. It’s very tough for schools to get kids to learn and retain information about social studies topics when our society tells them in so many ways that none of it really matters. Entertainment and celebrity is what is important in this country, and to hell with everything else. Ask those same kids questions about rock stars, movie stars, and TV and I guarantee you that you’ll get a very different outcome.

  19. Brian says:

    Objection, your honor. Attorney Buck has introduced new evidence that was not disclosed to the defense or this court. I ask that Mr. Buck’s last statement concerning the 3 branches of government be stricken form the record. Let the record show that Mr. Buck’s original claim was based upon the ability to name Supreme Court Justices.

    (I agree, naming the 3 branches isn’t really a proxy, but most of the things we are actually talking about are. Unless you really think we should encourage people to know useless trivia, in which case you can call name recognition of Alito a real outcome measure of something people ought to know. As far as I’m concerned, if a high schooler graduates knowing who John Marshall is then we’ve accomplished plenty. And you know what? 58% knowing the 3 branches seems high to me. Go us!)

  20. Brian says:

    Oh, wait. Just re-read this. Ok, so 42% can name the 3 branches, 58% can’t. My mistake. Go…us?

  21. matthewladner says:


    We don’t expect CNN Headline News to teach kids civics, we expect schools to do it. As it happens, it looks like you might learn almost as much about American history and government by watching Entertainment Tonight as taking high school civics.

  22. PeterLemonjelo says:

    I am struggling to see the connection between knowing who the first president was and a strong democracy? By that logic everyone should be required to know all of the presidents in order to be a citizen. Knowing WHY he was the first president and WHY we have a president and not a monarchy IS important to our strong democracy. Facts and dates never have and never will make for a strong democracy – critical thinking and problem solving ALWAYS will.

  23. Matt says:

    Peter, you think they have any hope of knowing WHY Washington was our first president when they don’t even know his name?

  24. [...] and regular blogger at Jay Greene and the United Cherry Pickers, was madly blogging [see here and here] about the civic ignorance of Oklahoma high school [...]

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