By Pete Winn, Senior Writer/Editor

Intercollegiate Studies Institute Report, "Our Fading Heritage"
( - More than twice as many Americans – 56 percent -- know that Paula Abdul is a judge on “American Idol” as know that the phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people” comes from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (21 percent) -- a phrase President-elect Barack Obama used in his election-night victory speech.

The average American is nearly illiterate when it comes to basic principles of American history, government and economics, according to a new report from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute – and politicians are even worse.

More than 2,000 people were administered a 33-question test this Spring on American history and our political and economic institutions. Of them, 71 percent -- college and non-college educated alike – got a failing mark, ISI’s Josiah Bunting III said, presenting the study at a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Thursday.

“It can truly be said that we are suffering from an epidemic of civic ignorance,” Bunting said. “The extent of failure is pervasive, cutting across every segment of the American population.

“Young Americans failed, but so did the elderly,” said Bunting. “Men and women, rich and poor, liberals and conservatives, Republican and Democratic, white, black, yellow and brown – all were united in their inability to master the basic features of America’s constitutional form of government.”

The overall average score was 49 percent – an “F” on any grading scale, he said. Liberals scored 49 percent, conservatives scored 48 percent. Independents and Republicans scored slightly better than Democrats (52 to 45 percent).

What Americans don’t know about civics – a subject that used to be required for high school graduation -- is shocking:

-- Less than half of Americans can name all three branches of government.

-- Only 27 percent of Americans know that the Bill of Rights prohibits the government from establishing an official religion in the U.S.

-- 54 percent do not know that the Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war, not the president.

Politicians, however, scored five points lower than the Average Joe, a performance that former Deputy Secretary of Education Eugene W. Hickok labeled “abysmal and alarming.”

-- Seventy-nine (79) percent of elected officeholders did not know that the Bill of Rights expressly forbids the government establishment of an official religion.

-- A large number (43 percent) of politicians did not know what the Electoral College does.

Only 32 percent of politicians can actually define what the free-enterprise system is – even though many of them may have campaigned for office pledging to defend it.

College graduates (whose average score was 57 percent), didn’t fare much better than those who didn’t get a college degree (whose average score was 44 percent).

“For each year of college attained, college graduates answered only one more question correctly than their high school counterparts,” Bunting said. “If you can get as much civic education from a library card and newspaper subscription as you can from an expensive college education, then something is terribly wrong with the activities on our campuses.”

Only college-educated Baby Boomers (those aged 45 to 60) did better than an “F,” scoring 61 percent – still a “D-minus.”

Befitting these financially troubled times, 79 percent of college grads correctly knew what President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs were about – but only 17 percent could properly define free-market capitalism.

“People may be listening to television experts talk about economic bailouts and the platforms of political candidates, but they apparently have little idea what our basic economic and political institutions are,” said Dr. Richard Brake, ISI’s director of university stewardship.

One of the reasons why there is such appalling civic ignorance is political correctness and multi-culturalism on college campuses, according to New York Times columnist David Brooks, who spoke after the press conference.

“It’s partly political correctness – which is that there are no great men and no great women, it’s all 'social movements,' its all people, and its all oppressed people, is who you focus on -- and that’s how you show your sympathy. It’s (considered) sort of elitist to look at the great and not the equal,” Brooks told

Darryl DeMarzio, an assistant professor in the education department at the University of Scranton, told that many politically correct college campuses no longer teach “history” classes, as most people remember.

“One of the purposes of a history course now is not the acquisition of historical knowledge, but it’s a vague skill like ‘thinking historically,’ or something like that,” DeMarzio said.

The culprit is that teachers are steeped in a philosophy called “constructivism.”

“That’s the idea that knowledge is not something that teachers possess and give to students or teach students,” DeMarzio tolld “Rather, knowledge is a process in which students construct meaning for themselves.

“So a historical question in a history class today is not, ‘Who were the major political participants of World War II?’ But it’s ‘What do you think of World War II?’ or ‘What might we learn from World War II?’ Think for yourself. Construct your own knowledge, your own meaning out of this.”

Political correctness is pervasive even when civics is required. Steve Bowen of the Maine Heritage Policy Center said his group looked at how the University of Maine system meets a legislative mandate to teach about society and culture.

“You have to take ‘Human Population in the Global Environment,’or ‘Humans and Global Change: Environmental Policy’-- you have to take one of those courses – but you don’t have to take civics, history, or economics at the University of Maine,” he said.

Bowen said students at the University of Maine can meet their requirement by taking the “Anthropology of Sex and Gender,” or “Victims of Progress: Indigenous Peoples in the Modern World.”

The ISI test, which is summarized in the report “Our Fading Heritage,” was created and administered by researchers at the University of Connecticut. Editor-in-Chief Terence Jeffrey is a visiting fellow at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and was involved in the preparation of the report.