Category: Education / Topics: Government History Information Knowledge

Judge Judy and the Supremes

by Stu Johnson

Posted: February 1, 2016

Some people think she is a Supreme Court justice…

Would you be able to pass the U.S. Citizenship Test?  The written test includes 20 multiple choice questions from a list of 100 (available in a study guide).  Among the questions are facts about the  American flag,  the U.S. Supreme Court, the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, the Bill of Rights, eligibility to become president of the United States, etc.

The test has been revised to be less like a trivia quiz and more focused on important civic knowledge. I was skeptical when I read about that, assuming it meant a dumbing down of the test, but what I saw looked well-reasoned and still leaves a test that even the best-informed American citizens might have trouble passing without some review.

Knowing nothing, or knowing a lot about nothing important

The sad truth is that the majority of Americans are likely to be more knowledgeable about entertainers and pop culture than they are about civics—the foundation for an informed and effective electorate.  As I have pointed out in previous posts (see links below), polls often seek opinions on topics for which there is little evidence of widespread knowledge and understanding.

In 1947, social science researchers Herbert H. Hyman and Paul B. Sheatsley wrote about “chronic know-nothings” in an article in Public Opinion Quarterly entitled “Some reasons why information campaigns fail”. The article described a study conducted for what was then called the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago (the legal name now is simply NORC, pronounced N-O-R-C).   Hyman and Sheatsley proposed five barriers to the free flow of ideas:  

  • There exists a hard core of chronic know-nothings (i.e., there is something about the uninformed that makes them hard to reach on any topic);
  • interested people acquire the most information;
  • people seek information congenial to their prior attitudes;
  • people interpret the same information differently; and
  • information does not necessarily change attitudes.

The data and findings discussed show that merely "increasing the flow" of information does not increase the effectiveness of an information campaign.  

Hyman and Sheatsley’s observations seem remarkably relevant today. Since 1947, access to information has escalated to dizzying heights, but that does not mean that civic knowledge has increased.  In fact, I would suggest that while “chronic know-nothings” still exist, the splintering of media outlets and the introduction of social media have led to a large segment of the population that is ill-informed or misinformed—but willing to share their opinion! 

The crisis in civic knowledge

On January 20, the major news outlets carried a report about a survey of recent college graduates, with one in ten (9.8%) saying that Judge Judith Sheindin, known to most of us as TV’s “Judge Judy,” was a sitting justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.

The survey that led to the Judge Judy stories was “ A Crisis in Civic Education,” commissioned by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, conducted in August 2015. According to the report, “There is a crisis in American civic education. Survey after survey shows that recent college graduates are alarmingly ignorant of America’s history and heritage. “

Among the findings of the study, carried out by the research firm GfK, were these, deemed “abysmal” by the report:

  • Only 20.6% of respondents could identify James Madison as the Father of the Constitution. More than 60% thought the answer was Thomas Jefferson—despite the fact that Jefferson, as U.S. ambassador to France, was not present during the Constitutional Convention.
  • College graduates performed little better: Only 28.4% named Madison, and 59.2% chose Jefferson.
  • How do Americans amend the Constitution? More than half of college graduates didn’t know. Almost 60% of college graduates failed to identify correctly a requirement for ratifying a constitutional amendment.
  • We live in a dangerous world—but almost 40% of college graduates didn’t know that Congress has the power to declare war.
  • College graduates were even confused about the term lengths of members of Congress. Almost half could not recognize that senators are elected to six year terms and representatives are elected to two-year terms.
  • Less than half of college graduates knew that presidential impeachments are tried before the U.S. Senate.
  • And 9.6% of college graduates marked that Judith Sheindlin—“Judge Judy”—was on the Supreme Court!

“These were not isolated findings. A 2012 ACTA survey found that less than 20% of American college graduates could accurately identify the effect of the Emancipation Proclamation, less than half could identify George Washington as the American general at Yorktown, and only 42% knew that the Battle of the Bulge occurred during World War II.”

While some of the details may seem trivial, the question remains concerning how much knowledge of history and civics is necessary to maintain an informed electorate and the relation of citizens to their government(s).

Despite a chorus of concern, not much has happened to improve the situation.  According to the ACTA report, while nearly all 12th graders reported studying civics, only 24% scored at the “proficient” level or above in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). 

In its report on the survey, US News & World Report linked an April 2015 story it had done on the results of the NAEP exam, “Few Eighth-Graders Proficient in U.S. History, Civic.

Results from the 2014 National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that roughly a quarter or fewer eighth-grade students scored at or above proficient in geography (27 percent), civics (23 percent) and U.S. history (18 percent). The overall average score in each of the three subjects is unchanged from 2010, the last time the test was administered in these subjects, although scores have marginally improved since the 1990s. What's more, there remain wide, and in some cases increasing, gender and racial achievement gaps.

On history tests, for example, 33 percent of Asian and Pacific Islander students scored at or above proficient, compared with just 6 percent of African-American students. The male-female gender gap in history scores, which was nonexistent in 1994 when the history test was first administered, has widened to four points.

Terry Mazany, chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees NAEP, said in a statement that history, geography and civics are core subjects "that must be a priority."

"They represent knowledge and skills that are fundamental to a healthy democracy," Mazany said. "The lack of knowledge on the part of America's students is unacceptable, and the lack of growth must be addressed. As a country, we must do better."

The grim reality

The ACTA report made this assessment:

The grim reality is that college graduates continue to show a level of ignorance of America’s system of government just as high school students do. Our vast national expenditure on higher education has had little or no measurable effect on giving students the skills and knowledge they need for effective citizenship.

The ACTA report also suggests a proliferation of non-solutions. “Too many college and universities confuse community service and student activists with civic education.”  While these can be a wholesome part of civic education, the report suggests, they do little without a base of coursework in American history and government.  

The ACTA report contains more thought-provoking insights worth quoting.  I encourage you to at least read through the Executive Summary of “A Crisis in Civic Education.”

Ignorance on display for Election 2016

We’ve already been inundated with months of campaigning and debates...and endless polls on issues and candidates. Tonight is the Iowa caucus and the chronic know-nothings are on full display.  One of the morning news shows did a segment asking people on a sidewalk in New York City about their knowledge of Iowa, its caucus system, and the candidates. Very few could point to Iowa on a map, knew it was the nation’s biggest producer of corn, knew anything about Iowa’s unique caucus system, or knew even basic facts about the candidates and their positions.  

Since Judge Judy is not on the United States Supreme Court, maybe someone could start a petition drive to get her elected.  Oh, sorry . . . Supreme Court justices are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Such is our well-informed electorate!

Related posts (on the InfoMatters blog):
Driven by pollsReporting or making news? April 8, 2015
Polling the first GOP debateLooking under the hood at the NBC/SurveyMonkey survey, August 11, 2015
Would you vote for Deez Nuts?Iowa farm boy scores big in poll, August 21, 2015

This blog entry also appears as an article on

Stu Johnson is owner of Stuart Johnson & Associates, a communications consultancy in Wheaton, Illinois focused on "making information make sense."

E-mail the author (moc.setaicossajs@uts*)

* For web-based email, you may need to copy and paste the address yourself.

Posted: February 1, 2016   Accessed 844 times

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