In the popular Jaywalking segments of his television show, Jay Leno asks a variety of fourth grade questions to random people on the streets of Los Angeles. The audience roars with laughter at their responses.
“Who was the first President of the United States?” Jay asked one young man. “Benjamin. (pause) Benjamin Franklin!” he replied with certainty.
“What was the Gettysburg Address? Have you heard of it?” asked Jay of a young woman. She responded, “Sure, I’ve heard of it! But I don’t know the exact address.”
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to watch several Jaywalking videos in the presence of retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Indicating she had never seen Leno’s street interviews before, O’Connor said, “Those aren’t for real, are they?” When someone whispered, “Yes,” I could feel the depth of her dismay. “Oh my, “she replied, “this is so very sad.”
As it turns out, it is even sadder than what Justice O’Connor imagined.
Today, the Educational Testing Service released a new study, Fault Lines in Our Democracy: Civic Knowledge, Voting Behavior, and Civic Engagement in the United States that gives a failing grade to American youth.
Among the dismal findings:
Only 25 percent of middle and high school students score at or about “proficient” in their knowledge of civics and American history.
There is an unprecedented gap in the income and educational levels of those who vote and those who don’t. The oldest, most highly educated, and highest income Americans are seven times more likely to vote than the youngest, least educated, and lowest income Americans.
Volunteering, a driving force in American social change and innovation is closely associated with age, educational attainment, and income. Young, poorly educated youth are highly disengaged from their communities.
While today’s announcement should beckon a call to action for our American educational institutions, civic organizations, and families, it is not the first study or national survey to have discovered a declining lack of civics knowledge among U.S. citizens.