In Electronic Age, Americans Getting Less Educated


By: Warner Todd Huston

A few weeks ago the Pew Research Center released their newest Political Knowledge Survey, a report that tracked the general political knowledge of responding Americans, and compared it to similar survey results from 1989. The results show that, as Pew reports, “public knowledge of current affairs is little changed by news and the information revolutions.” It seems somewhat reassuring for Pew to say we really haven’t gotten any dumber on politics. But a closer look at the results not only shows we are getting dumber, but that the internet and cable news “revolutions” really haven’t made us a whole lot smarter on politics, when you’d think that they would have. In fact, it seems more like these wonderful new sources of information we have at our fingertips have helped us but tread water in the hunt for a more informed public… even losing some ground.

Pew puts a rosy face on this news, but it certainly seems less optimistic when one takes a bit of time to think about the results. Saying that “On average, today’s citizens are about as able to name their leaders, and are about as aware of major news events, as was the public nearly 20 years ago”, Pew makes it seem as if nothing has really changed in the level of correct knowledge that Americans have about politics. But, there are some hints, even in their report, that things have actually deteriorated.

Interestingly, with a rhetorical wave of the hand, Pew seems to dismiss the information revolution’s failure to increase American’s level of political knowledge. On the Info revolution, Pew concludes “…a new nationwide survey finds that the coaxial and digital revolutions and attendant changes in news audience behaviors have had little impact on how much Americans know about national and international affairs.” But they do not develop the thought much.

I suppose that the Pew report isn’t the place to consider larger implications, as the facts of the survey are really the purpose of the report, naturally. Still, it is alarming that, with all the knowledge daily offered in so many forms to each American citizen and with the easy access we all have to that knowledge, we are not seeing any corresponding rise in knowledge base.

In fact, a quick perusal of the charts on the Pew webpage will show that we have actually lost some small percentage here and there of correctly answered survey questions compared to 1989.

One would think that with 24 hour cable news coverage, unstoppable Internet outlets on top of the traditional media offerings like TV, newspapers, and magazines, we would be much better informed than comparable Americans from 1989. The point seems to be that, whether all these new avenues of information are available or not, not enough Americans are making use of these newer news outlets.

The survey provides further evidence that changing news formats are not having a great deal of impact on how much the public knows about national and international affairs. The polling does find the expected correlation between how much citizens know and how avidly they watch, read, or listen to news reports. The most knowledgeable third of the public is four times more likely than the least knowledgeable third to say they enjoy keeping up with the news “a lot.”

On a good note, among those who do use the new media, however, the rate of correct knowledge is quite high in comparison to the rest which would tend to vouch for the success of those outlets if only among those who use them.

Unfortunately, the responding sample did poorly once the 23 question surveys were graded.

Using a common school grading scale in which 90% correct is the minimum necessary to receive an A, 80% for a B, 70% for a C, 60% for a D and less than 60% is a failing grade, Americans did not fare too well. Fully half would have failed, while only about one-in-six would have earned an A or B. While such a scale is useful in the classroom, it may be a poor way to judge whether people are sufficiently informed. Opinions vary about what people “should” know about news events, and a different mix of questions could easily have produced very different results.

“Fully half would have failed”. A miserable showing, indeed.

To my mind at least, the “money shot” in this article is that our generally higher levels of formal education does not seem to have done us much good.

…despite the fact that education levels have risen dramatically over the past 20 years, public knowledge has not increased accordingly.

And therein lies the chief failure of our culture. It isn’t that the new media has not made things better but that our educational system has slipped so far down the rat hole of government indifference and failure that the new media outlets have only helped us to merely stay at the same level as 20 years ago when there were far fewer avenues to educate oneself.

By simple logic, higher levels of education should mean a smarter — or at least more informed — public. As Pew alludes, more Americans have high school and college diplomas than ever before, yet we are not better informed despite all this “education”. This tends to be an indictment of the failure of our schools as opposed to one leveled against the new media outlets.

An inescapable conclusion seems to be that our schools are horribly failing us. Our schools are not helping us gain knowledge about our forms of government, our leaders and international politics. Our schools are also not instilling in our nation an interest in those areas of study.

This failure to teach even simple civics was brought home quite abruptly by the general confusion generated by the 2000 presidential election. So many Americans didn’t know how a president actually gets elected that calls of a “stolen election” rang true to too many ignorant of even the most basic knowledge of civics. And the many discussions of 9/11, Supreme Court rulings and immigration reproves this dearth of basic civics knowledge time and again.

I’d lay odds that, had the information revolution not occurred, we would have seen a further decline in political knowledge than we did in the Pew study. And the blame can only be laid at the feet of our failing schools and the resulting cultural disinterest.

So, I’d rebrand their study “Schools Failures Lead to Lower Public Knowledge About Politics”.

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