Wednesday, April 27, 2011

How Ignorant are YOU?

I thought I'd do a little table turning here today (and also make things a bit easy on myself, as I'm home with a cold) by posting the link to this quiz from a recent Newsweek. These are 25 questions that might be asked of an immigrant to the U.S. who is seeking citizenship. Apparently the way it works is that you are randomly given ten of these questions and have to get six of them right. The test was given to a wide swathe of Americans and 38% failed. Go ahead and take the test if you're so inclined, then meet back here. (Updated to say that the link to the first question is HERE)

(For anybody is not so inclined, you might just take a look at this issue of the magazine on line anyway. I actually swiped it from the laundromat because it has an article by Paul Theroux on Japan's recent tragedy, another by Simon Winchester  on the lost city of Atlantis, and even a piece by Stephen King on what he considers to be some must see TV.)


All done? Great. Let me start out by confessing that though I would have passed the 25 question quiz, on the shorter and official version, it depends a lot on what the ten random questions were. Odds are good, but still. And a lot might have ridden on the fact that I temporarily blanked out on the name of our current vice president. I could see him but that was it. I'm sure it would have come to me, but that's a lot to have riding on a memory glitch.

Now I'm not going to argue that Americans aren't pretty ignorant. Every time you watch one of the late night shows ask random people on the street if they know who the current Speaker of the House is, or even easier questions, you realize that a lot of people aren't exactly keeping up with current events. But I didn't entirely buy the larger premise of the piece, which was to bemoan our educational system and then propose remedies.

First of all, this kind of quiz is the kind of thing that is a bit like the DMV quiz. Sure, you know it all somewhere, or knew it once, but before you go in for the quiz, you get a little booklet, swat it up, and hone your memory. I know we have a lot of high school dropouts in this country, but most people who did complete all four years did have to take Civics, or at least in California they do. So you did learn at some point about the three branches of government, the two houses of Congress, the Bill of Rights and amendments at some point. Didn't you? I'm not saying it's particularly deep knowledge, but it does at least give you a structure to start from.

Secondly, the citizenship quiz makes a funny contrast with the proposed remedies in this follow up article , which among other things, advocates teaching the broader implications and questions that our history brings up. Surely the way you ace the citizenship quiz is by a lot of rote learning and ignoring the bigger issues altogether.

Maybe because I got it wrong, I question whether it is really important to know how many members there are in the House of Representatives, except when you're a strategist for a major political party. And I wonder if knowing how many amendments there are (yeah, wrong again) is as important as knowing what was at stake in a few crucial ones, like those that abolished slavery, and gave voting rights to a wider and wider portion of the population.

Excuses, excuses. What else did I get wrong? I blew it on Presidential succession (wrong house, though of course I had known it and will know it again), and I messed up on the supreme law of the land (Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Did I mention I have a cold?). But the one I would have contested if it was all that stood in the way of me and the swearing-in ceremony? I said that one of the powers of the federal government was taxation.

Yeah, it's been recently on my mind.     


  1. I must be pretty ignorant because I couldn't find the actual quiz in the article, (which I was too lazy to read all of).

    However, having 2 kids in a good public school district, and working with the teachers in the school, I will say the school system Is beyond messed up. It's becoming, and already is in a lot of ways, nothing but a system set up to make the government look good while failing our children. It's sad, and very scary.

    I'll get off my soap box now.

  2. Glenna, you're right. The test is too hard to get to that way. I didn't follow it because I'd already taken it in the magazine.

    I'll add the link though I certainly don't mind if you don't want to bother with the test.It's just for anyone who thinks it's fun to try.

    But you're right about the schools. In California, anyway, it has been nothing but cuts for several years. It is a very depressing topic.

  3. Seana -

    This is really weird because I totally blanked on Joe Biden's name as well. Couldn't remember who was Prez during WWI, either. And though I did remember the random number questions (how many members of the House, how many amendments, etc.), I agree with you: remembering this sort of data is good preparation for Jeopardy, but how much does it help most people in the real world? I think you're onto something that it's more important people understand some of the more important issues addressed by the amendments.

    -Brian O

  4. That is weird, Brian. Is it that he's been completely overshadowed in Obama's limelight? I like to think that if my citizenship was at stake, I would have sat there till it came to me.

    The funny thing is that although some articles do break it down by gender, politics, religious beliefs, the one that proposes fixes seems to be pretty much at odds with the quiz.

    I'm sure someone has pointed that out in the magazine comments, but I can' be bothered wading through that.

  5. The most pathetic thing about my not remembering the Veep's name? He spoke at my law school graduation.


    You may be onto something there, about his being overshadowed by Obama. I think that's the case for most VPs, but especially so here.

    -Brian O

  6. That and I think everyone kind of subconsciously thinks of him as some equivalent of "Uncle Joe".

  7. I don't know.

    (I have a good v-word if one breaks it into three: puttome)

  8. You can start calling me Yankee Doodle Dandy now.

    Some of the questions went to such lengths to make themselves clear that they did just the opposite. I know, for instance, that Susan B. Anthony fought for women's rights, but the question "What did Susan B. Anthony do?" made me think the test wanted some specific accomplishment of hers, and I knew of none. Then I saw that the correct answer was "fought for women's rights."
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  9. I figured as much, Yankee. Yes, I did find myself wondering a bit how they'd decide which answers were acceptable. For instance, I actually would have put that Martin Luther King fought for the desegregation of the South, but I might have been penalized for that.

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  11. I reacted the same way to the King question as to the Anthony. What did MLK do?

    He delivered one of the most famous speeches of the 20th centuty

    He won the Nobel Peace Prize.

    He had a dream, etc.

  12. Well, I hope no one was denied citizenship because they couldn't find the right right answer to the questions.

  13. One hopes the graders have brains.

    The regional center where the test is adminstered and the oath taken is a block from where I work, and my paper will publish stories about it from time to time. I should ask one of the reporters how much latitude the test givers have in grading answers.

  14. 10 out of 10 but my god some of those questions were vague.

  15. I would have expected no less, Mr. McKinty.

    The more you think about it,though, the more you wonder what the test is supposed to be screening.

    Did someone say, "Let's design a test that keeps out everyone who doesn't know who was president during WWI. That'll teach 'em!"

  16. The one about the Cold War...What were our aims or something and the answer was the defeat of communism. Yeah what about avoiding nuclear holocaust? Also what did Martin Luther King do? I might be able to come up with more than one sentence about that...

    For my test I memorised the entire bill of rights, every state capital, every supreme court justice and President. It also might have helped that I had previously taught civics for six years. They had the audacity to ask me what date the Declaration of Independence was signed and who the current Chief Justice and Presient were! I was disgusted.

  17. Well, I like the title of Presient, though I don't think the one who was in charge when you took the test was probably all that much so.

    Yes, I think it's a weird mix of the totally basic and the totally open ended. Here's hoping they are flexible in their acceptance of the latter. I might not have passed the Martin Luther King question, even though I know perfectly well what he was attempting to do.