The Civic Literacy Quiz

From way back in early December, from a comment left on my blog by commenter Bernstein, comes this Civic Literacy test that Americans supposedly do so bad at.

I took the test and scored something like 46/60, for a score of 77%. I’d be more upset with myself if I thought the test was any good. It’s not.

The last dozen questions or so were on the topic of the free market and economics. They were silly, with some of them being false.

But then again, I’m not surprised. Look at the mission statement of the organization that puts on the quiz:

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) was founded in 1953 to further in successive generations of American college youth a better understanding of the economic, political, and ethical values that sustain a free and humane society.


Crap like that – and yes, it is crap – sets off all sorts of alarm bells in my head, because “free society” is often claimed to be synonymous with capitalism. (And how can a society that permits the death penalty be called ‘humane’?)

Too bad the result of capitalism is most certainly not democracy. In fact, the two are just about polar opposites when it comes to values and ideology. I know it’s been fashionable to rhetorically equate the two recently, but seriously.

A sample question (not chosen at random):

50) Free markets typically secure more economic prosperity than government’s centralized planning because:


Can you spot the assumption? Hint: It’s the word ‘more’. The questions implies an empirical claim, but provides no evidence and instead treats it like fact. And no, shouting “Soviet Union” does not count as evidence… unless you were looking for a Magical Communist Pony.

How about this one:

51) Which of the following is the best measure of production or output of an economy?


When the answer is Gross Domestic Product, I know I’m in the presence of wishful thinking. GDP is the commonly accepted answer to this question, it’s true, but Robert Kennedy shredded that notion a long time ago:

The gross national product includes air pollution and advertising for cigarettes and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and jails for the people who break them. GNP includes the destruction of the redwoods and the death of Lake Superior. It grows with the production of napalm, and missiles and nuclear warheads… it does not allow for the health of our families, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It is indifferent to the decency of our factories and the safety of our streets alike. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, or the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.


Basically, the latter part of the test gets at how well you believe the dominant ideology of the United States, not how informed you are. There’s a substantial difference.

Heck, the first part of the quiz contains a bunch of questions that are completely irrelevant to modern life, even if we include knowledge of history as a causal factor as relevant knowledge.

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One Comment on “The Civic Literacy Quiz”

  1. Lebanon Truth Says:

    We got a 92%. So that means we should think that the test is both valid and reliable — NOT!

    Is it important that a citizen know that judicial review was established in McCulloch v. Maryland or Marbury v. Madison? Or is it important for citizens to know that laws have to be constitutional and that the judicial branch decides whether laws are constitutional?

    This ties in nicely with the post about the Chamber presentation — Steve Kelley’s comment about stuffing student’s heads with facts rather than teaching them how to learn. Let’s face it, this generation is going to be instantly hooked up to the web so that they can retrieve any facts they need, any time they need them. They need to know how to find the right facts and how to analyze them.

    Good observations.


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