Monday, June 25, 2007

Newsweek Knowledge Survey

Newsweek has a new "what you need to know" survey out this week. (Article, Results). The headline, "Dunce Cap Nation", pretty well captures their summary of the data. Of the 29 items, only a quarter found more than 55% of the public giving the correct answer. Half the items had between 29% and 55% correct, and a quarter fell below 29% correct. (Though defenders of American culture might note that the fourth lowest percentage correct was being able to name the winner of American Idol (A: Jordin Sparks). ) And while the lowest single item was the ability to name the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, both Speaker Pelosi and President Putin made it into the top quarter of awareness.

A few of the items were downright tricky. (But don't let me spoil it for you... try the questions yourself.)

And as my colleague Mark Blumenthal points out, some would argue that the answer to
From what you know about the situation, do you think the United States is losing the fight against al-Qaeda or radical Islamic terrorism?
just might be considered a tad political opinion and not so much objective fact.

But while Newsweek is primly aghast at such public ignorance, I doubt any college teacher would be. Knowledge is remarkably compartmentalized. In areas of interest, students are able to develop stunning depth of knowledge, while outside those interests the acquisition of new knowledge, and the retention of what is acquired (say, for the midterm), is quite meager.

And what is the impact of this? Most of us, most of the time, lack the foundation for and the motivation to do independent analysis of political problems outside our narrow areas of expertise. Instead we rely on political leaders with whom we think we agree to lead us. We accept and repeat the arguments that come from our side, and we reject out of hand the arguments that come from the other side. Seldom is independent knowledge and judgment involved, even as we repeat what we've heard and think we are expressing an informed opinion. And that is as true of the Jane Austen scholar who offers political views as it is of the polling expert who opines about budget policy. Outside our narrow expertise, we seldom form original opinions.