In anticipation of our Nation’s fast approaching birthday celebration, Penn State Abington recently conducted a “nonscientific” survey on people’s general knowledge of the Declaration of Independence. The results showed that Americans need to brush up on their civic knowledge.
Participants were asked who most consider the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, to name the king that is the subject of grievances in the document, the origins of the declaration, what rights were claimed for all humanity by the authors, and whether or not the Declaration of Independence was a law.
Of the 111 participants, nine individuals received a perfect score and three participants didn’t get any correct answers; 67 percent knew that Thomas Jefferson was the principle author of the historic document and 66 percent knew that King George III of England was the king causing trouble for the colonies. Interestingly, only 16 percent of the participants knew the starting phrase of the Declaration, which begins, “When in the course of human events...”
According to the famous document, “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” are the rights shared all humans, yet only 67 percent of the participants knew the correct answer. Looking on the brighter side of the results, most people (86 percent) knew that the Declaration of Independence was not a law.
The survey group’s correct answer average was 60 percent, which translates to an “F” according to Penn State’s grading system. Although not a grade one wants on an imaginary transcript, the survey results sadly reflect the nation as a whole with regard to civic knowledge.
Interpreting the results of Abington’s nonscientific survey was Salar Ghahramani, lecturer of business law and political science.
“To put our results in some context, we can look at scientific polls and see how citizens view their own understanding of the founding texts. An ABCNEWS poll conducted in 2003 found, for instance, that one in five American adults express that they are unfamiliar with the Declaration of Independence and that only 17 percent express a great deal of familiarity with the document. A similar number of adults express their familiarity, or lack thereof, with the Constitution.”
Ghahramani believes the real question is how knowledge of the founding texts translates into responsible citizenship and civic action.
“Responsible citizenship means different things to different people. Ultimately, a nation's understanding of its own social and political history is crucial to its progress. We know there is a direct connection between civic knowledge and public participation, civic engagement and voting. The knowledge of founding documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, and the Constitution is, without a doubt, an imperative component of our society. This knowledge, coupled with deliberation and a willingness to engage allow our society to better understand itself and further advance its visions of freedom and democracy. Educational institutions clearly have a role in fostering this knowledge component but must also play a vital role in cultivating other ingredients of a civil society,” Ghahramani said.
So as the nation’s birthday nears -- flags flapping, hamburgers and hotdogs grilling, and fireworks exploding -- take a minute to brush up on civic knowledge.
Happy Fourth of July!