- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 18, 2009



It is a testament to the openness of young minds and hearts that teenagers can swiftly memorize the lyrics to their favorite songs, remembering them and the feelings they first evoked for the rest of their lives.

The best moments in a person’s education have a similar quality. They are remembered forever with fondness.

A recent survey by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), however, suggests the average American today remembers more about “American Idol” than about America’s ideals.

Last spring, ISI surveyed a representative sample of 2,508 Americans. Each was asked various questions about their habits, attitudes and background and then given a 33-question “civic literacy” test on America’s history, key texts and institutions.

The test questions were basic and straightforward, yet profound and important. Six, for example, were taken from U.S. government naturalization exams and nine from the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests that the U.S. Department of Education uses to assess high school seniors.

One multiple-choice question was simply borrowed from the “American History 101” test posted online at www.infoplease.com. This question asked, “What was the source of the following phrase: ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people?’ ” The potential answers were: “(a) The speech ‘I Have a Dream,’ (b) Declaration of Independence, (c) U.S. Constitution or (d) Gettysburg Address.”

Only 21 percent correctly answered that the phrase came from President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, perhaps the most iconic speech in American history. Forty-four percent incorrectly said it came from the Declaration of Independence and 31 percent incorrectly said it came from the Constitution.

Overall, 71 percent of the Americans surveyed failed the ISI civic literacy test. The average score was only 49 percent. Even college graduates failed the test - earning an average score of only 57 percent - and only 24 percent of those who finished their formal education with a bachelor’s degree were able to recognize the language of the Gettysburg Address.

Another question on the survey asked respondents if they could name the three judges on the popular TV show “American Idol.” Paula Abdul, it turned out, was the most well-known. Fifty-six percent of respondents volunteered her name as one of the “American Idol” judges.

That means more than twice as many Americans recognize Paula Abdul as an “American Idol” judge as recognize the language of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

To be sure, the Gettysburg Address is not the only national document fading from the national memory - even as “American Idol” takes hold. Only 27 percent of Americans, the survey showed, know the Bill of Rights expressly prohibits establishing an official religion for the United States. Paula Abdul, in other words, is more than twice as well-known as the First Amendment’s establishment clause.

She is also more well-known than the three branches of government, which only 49 percent of respondents could name.

Maybe it would help if someone set the Constitution to pop music - or persuaded young Americans to watch less TV while requiring them to take more classes focusing on our nation’s history and Founding documents. The latter, in fact, is a remedy some of the survey data suggests might cure our national amnesia.

Indeed, the survey results showed the more time test-takers devoted to watching television, the lower they scored on the test. Conversely, the more they read independently, discussed public affairs with family and friends, and participated in their local community, the higher they scored on the test. Scores also rose the longer test-takers stayed in school and the more civics classes they completed.

There was other good news in the survey, too. Five times as many Americans remembered Paula Abdul was an “American Idol” judge as remembered Simon Cowell. Simon, it turned out, was not even as memorable as, well, the Gettysburg Address.

As it so happens, this week an interesting confluence of events will occur. Tomorrow, we will celebrate the life of Martin Luther King Jr., whose “I Have a Dream” speech was delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and which paraphrased some of the immortal words from both the Gettysburg Address and the Declaration of Independence. On Tuesday, the nation will witness the Inauguration of its first African-American president, in a sense fulfilling the vision of political equality enunciated by Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King.

And later Tuesday evening, the second installment of this year’s “American Idol” contest will air on Fox Television. What event will garner the higher ratings? And what event will resonate longest in the public imagination? The answer, I believe, will say a lot about the long-term health and viability of our republic.

Richard Brake is director of university stewardship at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) and co-chairman of ISI’s National Civic Literacy Study.

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