Get your No. 2 pencils ready, class — it’s time for another civics test!

Well, I’m appalled. The average American scored 49 percent on the latest civics quiz from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. College professors, on average, scored 55 percent.

And I’m sorry, class, but I’m not grading on a curve on this one. Everything on this test is something that every American should know. Every American who is allowed to vote, that is.

That said, I missed one of the questions — I read the multiple choices too fast. I didn’t like the answer I gave, but since I had misread the right answer, I liked it better than that one. Once my error was pointed out to me, I saw my mistake right away. So it’s something that I do know. (I’m not telling you which one it was yet, because I don’t want to give you the correct answer before you take it.)

In any case, I did score 96.97 percent, which I think would qualify as an A on anyone’s scale.

Not that I’m bragging. All but three or four of the 33 questions are ridiculously easy. I could see missing one or more, or even all, of those three or four. But miss 45 percent of them? That should be impossible for anyone who has even briefly attended college, much less professors.

And when I contemplate the average person getting 49 percent, I’m reminded of something Mrs. Whitner, the English teacher, said to a boy in my class at Bennettsville High School: “Boy, when they were handing out brains, you took a ham sandwich.” Teachers were allowed to say things to kids in those days.

And to think, we let these people vote.

Go ahead, see how you do. Don’t be intimidated by my scorn; I expect most of y’all will do well.

Here’s the test. Start now.

63 thoughts on “Get your No. 2 pencils ready, class — it’s time for another civics test!

  1. bud

    I got 30 of 33 correct. I missed two because I didn’t know the answer (the one about Plato, etc plus the one about the Puritans) and another one that I answered too quickly without thinking it through (the one related to government fiscal policy. Ironic since I harp on the correct answer in this blog ad naseum).

  2. Matt Bohn

    I missed one too. The one about Plato and Aristotle. In all fairness, you kind of have to be a history buff to get many of them. Most people aren’t aware of Roosevelt’s court-packing scheme or are hazy on Lincoln-Douglas. I’d hate to have to take a math test along the same lines. I remember almost nothing.

  3. Greg Jones

    While I don’t expect it’s on the quiz, why is it legal for the RNC to solicit money from me for congressional races in which I don’t live. (I know it’s legal, but it shouldn’t be!)

  4. Brad

    The Socrates one was tricky, because I am no classicist. But if you’re familiar with the general thrust of ideas in Western civilization, you can intuit the right answer, which is what I did. Of the four wrong ones, one was historically impossible (since it involved ideas that didn’t exist in the days of the three Greeks) and the other three were extremely modernist (read, “relativist”), and in no way reflect the way people thought for most of Western intellectual history…

  5. Doug Ross

    Missed 4. Plato, Lincoln Douglas, and two of the quotes.

    I got the one right about who is able to declare war even though it hasn’t been true in reality for 70 years.

  6. Brad

    Put another way, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Aquinas thought the way I do on the point in question, rather than the way that is fashionable in this age.

    There. I’ve just given it away to those who haven’t taken the test yet…

  7. Doug Ross

    Matt hits the nail on the head. The ability to memorize many of these historical facts is far less important than understanding how the government works (or doesn’t) today.

    There’s nothing in the Constitution about lobbyists, campaign finance, the Federal Reserve, or the military industrial complex.

  8. bud

    Given that the most anyone missed here (if everyone is honest) is 4 does than mean we’re smarter than the average American or are the readers here dishonest? Can’t imagine anyone with even a modest understanding of civics missing more than about 8.

  9. Kevin

    I missed two. But who cares about the Puritans anyway? And that tax=gov’t spending one is debatable in my opinion.

    But I will not say that this was an “easy” test. It was for me, but that’s because I am smart about civics and history. But I could completely see how the average person wouldn’t know the answers to half of these questions.

  10. Mark Stewart

    I missed three – good only for a B+; though I was surprised by the ones that I did miss and also found more than a few to be a bit tricky in that one needed to be a bit thoughtful to reach for the correct answer. For instance, I had a hard time picking the “Roe v. Wade” answer when it said that the Supreme Court had struck down most RESTRICTIONS on abortion. Clearly, that was a bit of a semantic stretch. But I got it.

    I missed the Gettysburg Adress(!), Puritans, and the Jefferson Letters answers. The second two don’t bother me too much.

  11. Jesse S.

    I did quite poorly. Perfect on history and government, but bombed the tax questions. I guess going with the typical pro-business answer doesn’t always work.

  12. Jennifer Fitz

    I got a B. “You answered 29 out of 33 correctly — 87.88 %”

    Three I didn’t know, and one I was just being stupid.

    These two we didn’t study in school, I kid you not: Roosevelt v. Supreme Court; original source for of-by-for-the-people.

    Lincoln v. Douglas debates I couldn’t remember the exact details of, and guessed wrong.

  13. Jennifer Fitz

    Brad, I wouldn’t have known Socrates from anything I learned in school. I know if from our parish’s 5th grade religious ed book + assorted philosophers I know. Most of the economics questions I know from college, not high school.

  14. Kathleen

    3 wrong. Economics and statistics give me the creeps. This was not a high school level civics test. Unless you absolutely knew the answer,many of the questions required the the synthesis of a lot of general information. In my observation, many, if not most, college graduates under 40 are lacking in the general information field – even the liberal arts graduates.

  15. Dave C

    I missed three…two quotes misremembered and the last tax question (which I think I read incorrectly). Scary to think that so many folks did so much poorer (except, of course, for the brainpower harnessed by this blog!)

  16. Brad

    Yes, this is a self-selected group, of people who are more than usually interested in public affairs.

    And Kathleen hit it on the head: “many of the questions required the the synthesis of a lot of general information.”

    Exactly. And I think that’s what Doug is saying when he says the “ability to memorize many of these historical facts is far less important than understanding how the government works.”

    I’m not much of one on memorization, although I do have a facility for remembering combinations of words. What I do is understand the context, see how things fit together. So that when I don’t flat-out KNOW the right answer, I know enough about the ideas running through our history to know which answers are wrong. And with a small number of exceptions, the wrong answers offered were really wrong.

    For instance, you don’t have to know the exact date that something occurred to know the order of events, or to know at least which CENTURY something occurred in. But a lot of people lack that fundamental understanding of the general thrust of history and ideas. And those people are bound to fail something like this. They could spend any amount of time they wish memorizing facts, but if they don’t understand how facts fit together, they will fail this test.

  17. Tim

    Surpised myself 96.7. Thought I missed several. I missed 1 (the last one, ironically). Maybe I couldn’t google the last answer fast enough

  18. Maggie

    32 out of 33. I got my amendment numbers mixed up. It was interesting to see the 2008 survey results — not surprisingly the citizens beat the elected officials.

  19. bud

    No googling (or other internet cheating) here. But I was tempted. You need to put up a math/science quiz sometime Brad. Haven’t we done these civics test things already? I would suggest folks are sadly lacking in those skills as well.

  20. Tim

    No, Brad, Just joshing, I am afraid. In line with my recent postings of video’s. I was a real apple-polisher on this one, done from memory and dumb luck. You and I are now 3.3%-ers

  21. Brad

    All right! Tim gets a gold star…

    And Bud, I might put up a math test sometime if I see a good one. But this sort of test speaks more to what this blog is about.

    Go ahead and accuse me of being biased in favor of what I’m good at (although I’ll have you know that I got a REALLY high score on my Math SAT, way higher than verbal), but the fact is that understanding the general thrust of history and the law and political theory is critically important to being a citizen, whereas math is not. You need to retain math skills if you pursue a career as an engineer, but not in many other professions. EVERYONE in this self-governed country has an obligation to be conversant with the sorts of things that this test was about.

  22. David Carlton

    I “missed” two; one because for some reason it scored the wrong answer even though I entered the correct one, and the other I’d argue about. In any case, it’s what I’d expect from ISI–which used to be run by a guy I grew up with in Spartanburg.

  23. bud

    But this sort of test speaks more to what the blog is about.

    Exactly. We shouldn’t all be so smug here about doing well on something we’re really interested in. Perhaps a sort of control group test would show that we really are human after all and not any better than others. Just trying to put this in perspective.

  24. Karen McLeod

    So far I’m the dunce with 28 out of 33. I could have sworn that the President declared war, and Congress had to ratify that in 3 days, or some such. Weird (and apparently wrong) memory.

  25. Tim

    The Illuminati are pleased you believe you are in a self-governed country. When they made up the Constitution in 1945, after the Atomic bomb wiped out everyone’s memories, they had no idea their plan would work so well.

  26. `Kathryn Fenner

    I quit halfway through. Plato, et al., have little to do with American civics and many of the questions are history, not civics. Even those that are civics are ore of the picky facts stuff–that I know because I am a lawyer, like Roe v Wade or Plessy v Ferguson. They should ask the concepts, not the names.

    Civics should be about how government works and the the principals behind laws and good citizenship, not name-checking the Founding Fathers or Supreme Court cases. It does not matter to the average citizen which amendment or clause contains which rights; it is the content of those rights. Lawyers need to know this stuff, not citizens.

    Many citizens would just give up and figure they are out of high school so f— it. The core principles are understandable to almost everyone, and what should be stressed.

  27. Doug Ross


    I couldn’t disagree more. Knowing that only Congress can declare war is only useful if you can then rationalize why Presidents for 60 years have not followed the Constitution and then extrapolate the impact that doing so has had on our foreign policy and deficits.

    The first part is just a trivial fact.

  28. Doug Ross

    And you don’t have to memorize the Gettysburg Address to understand the importance of it.

    It’s like saying “I know all the characters in Star Wars so I know how to make a similar movie”.

  29. Doug Ross


    Don’t feel bad. You’ve been brainwashed from Presidents all the way back to LBJ… Declaring war takes a certain level of political guts that no modern President has demonstrated.

  30. Brad

    Doug, what were you disagreeing with?

    By the way, I felt the way Doug does about the war declaration power when I saw the one about the “wall of separation” between church and state. It often seems to me that EVERYBODY in the country thinks the Constitution calls for that.

    And our courts, over the past few decades, have encouraged them to make that mistake. We’ve gotten to the point, via precedent, where the state of our law is much closer to Jefferson’s idea. But that most assuredly is NOT what the Constitution said.

  31. Brad

    I’ve never seen the Brady bunch, but I’m familiar with the “Marsha, Marsha, Marsha” joke.

    I feel the same way about Jefferson. His apologists have succeeded admirably in making him the most revered of the Founders. Everybody seems to go by Jefferson for their idea of what the Founders envisioned. It’s always “Jefferson, Jefferson, Jefferson!”

    When really, he was just this guy with a good turn of phrase who didn’t say a WORD during the debate over independence, but when he got appointed to the committee to write the Declaration (AFTER the Independence vote), was asked by Adams to do the honors because of his writing skill. Adams and Franklin figured out what needed to be said; Jefferson made it sound good. He was like a marketing consultant, so I know whereof I speak.

    Not to take anything away from him as President. I thought he did a good job, but mainly because he was bold enough to step outside his “small government” rhetorical shell to do some big things — such as the Louisiana Purchase. Good one there, even if he only saw it only as a paradise for naturalists.

    He also — and take note, Doug — sent the Navy and Marines to deal with the Barbary States.

    He did this without a formal declaration of war (quite a bit earlier than LBJ), and made aggressive use of the Navy that he hadn’t wanted to fund.

    So basically, I admire him for being a flip-flopper.

  32. Elliott

    I missed 4. Who declares war, Roosevelt stacking the court were two of them. I majored in sociology 40 years ago so I think most of the answers would be known by anyone who reads the paper. I did take Western Civ and Government in college. Anyway I think 87.8 is a B, and since I didn’t study for this test I am happy with my B.

  33. Silence

    @ Brad,
    How have you never seen the Brady Bunch? It’s just like “Downton Abbey” but without the accents, and set in 1970’s suburbia.

    Once you finish watching the entire Brady Bunch series, including the Hawaii special, I will introduce you to other classic American television shows, including but not limited to:
    I Love Lucy
    The Andy Griffith Show
    Gilligan’s Island
    & M*A*S*H.

  34. Silence

    P.S. not having watched the Brady Bunch automatically makes you fail the civics test. Please deduct 90 points from your score, and award yourself 3 demerits. One more demerit this week, and you will receive a suspension, plus we will send a note home with you on Friday.

  35. Doug Ross


    I was disagreeing with your statement that understanding “but the fact is that understanding the general thrust of history and the law and political theory is critically important to being a citizen, ”

    Kathryn has it right – this test is just a Jeopardy category: “U.S. History for $200, Alex.”

  36. Scout

    87.88%. Missed Roe v. wade (thought it was a trick of wording involving ‘most’), free markets, gettysburg address, and taxes/government spending.

    I’ve listened to a biography of Lincoln recently and watched John Adams on Netflix and googled stuff when I hear or see stupidity on the internet. All of these things helped as much or more than my schooling.

    But I’m also pretty good at deducing stuff from the bits I do know. It’s how I got through school.

  37. Herb Brasher

    The program crashed on me halfway through, and won’t let me complete it. But I did get the first 16 all right–so I was on my way to a good score?

  38. marconi

    `Kathryn Fenner says:
    February 13, 2012 at 5:33 pm

    I quit halfway through. Plato, et al., have little to do with American civics and many of the questions are history, not civics….

    A ridiculous excuse for willful ignorance, and most appalling since the writer is, as she says an attorney. As a relative and admitted bumpkin on such issues I always thought the Socratic method was widely used in contemporary legal education by most law schools in the United States. How in the name of Harry Truman can that NOT be apart of civics.

    She goes onto say that “Lawyers need to know this stuff, not citizens.”

    In at least one conception, democratic education teaches students “to participate in consciously reproducing their society, and conscious social reproduction.”

    While it may well be true that while most people need not know this “stuff” except the learned like herself, from the perspective of the LESS learned (I only got a score of 90.7 on the test) I can only quote Bob Edwards from NPR who said

    A little learning is a dangerous thing, but a lot of ignorance is just as bad. ~Bob Edwards

  39. Mark Stewart

    I found ETV’s “Slavery By Another Name” to be a compelling documentary last night. It really delved into the obscured realities that have so harmed our society in the South.

    It was the stuff that ought to be a part of everyone’s historical and civic understanding – what happens when we don’t pay attention to what is really going on around us.

  40. bud

    A number of people missed the declaration of war question. It does seem like that is an obsolete part of the constitution that really doesn’t apply anymore. Too bad. That is one are of the constitution that is really important.

  41. tired old man

    I missed three for 90.93%. Two I knew better, and I simply did not take time to read the nuances of the third set of answers.

    What is amazing is to delve further, and to see the gap that exists between the scores of citizens and the scores of elected officials. Hint — citizens sweep!

  42. Bart

    If the percentages at the beginning are correct, this country is in deep $#%#$^@%^%^%!!!!

    This quiz should be basic to any semi-effective educational system.

    The percentages reminded me of a movie my wife and I watched last night, “Idiocracy”. My first inclination was to change the channel but she insisted I watch it. Both funny and frightening at the same time.

    If you haven’t watched it, if you have a little time available, you might enjoy it, especially anyone who believes Fox News is dumbing down America. I will give one thing away. 500 years into the future, Fox News is the only news channel available.

  43. Bart

    One last observation. On all of the 33 questions, only on the last 4 did politicians score higher than the average citizen.

    Now, that is pathetic. And to think we keep sending them back, time and time again.

  44. `Kathryn Fenner

    @ marconi– Wilful ignorance? You don’t read this blog comments section very often, do you? I didn’t say I didn’t know the answers. I said they were a poor measure of civics knowledge.

    I can pose far better questions:

    What are some the justifications for zoning laws?
    What is procedural due process and how does it differ from substantive due process?
    Discuss the history of corporate personhood? Did the Supremes make corporations persons?
    Is there a right to “freedom of religion” per se in the US Constitution?
    What is the Commerce Clause and why is it a good thing? How has it been used to expand civil rights?

  45. Silence

    Idiocracy is a great concept, but ultimately it fails as an enjoyable movie. However, with each passing year, more of it seems to come true.

    I can’t wait for my local Starbucks to sell me a “gentleman’s latte”…

  46. Silence

    @ Kathryn –
    1) Zoning laws are part of the ordinary police powers that state governments may exercise over real property with the intent of avoiding incompatible land uses. I believe that they derive from English Common Law, something relevant to tanneries was the classic example, but the US Supreme’s upheld zoning laws in the Euclid case.
    2) Don’t know.
    3) Corporations have been viewed as separate legal entities for a long time, since ancient Rome and in Europe. I don’t believe that the Supreme court “made them persons” – Citizens United notwithstanding.
    4) The Constitution says that we won’t have a “state-established” religion.
    5) The Commerce Clause gives congress the power to regulate foreign trade, trade with (brown or red) indians and between the several states. It’s a good thing since it provides a fairly level playing field for businesses located in different states, and prevents discriminitory regulation of out of state businesses. By extending a federal nexus into almost all commerce, it has been used to force operations such as restaurants, bus operators, etc. to adopt non-discriminitory policies, etc.

  47. `Kathryn Fenner

    @ Silence– Good. Number 2–Procedural due process is the right to notice and an opportunity to be heard–your day in court–and it varies depending on the situation–schoolchildren have a low standard for due process, and Death Row a very high one.
    Substantive due process was a concept created to deal with bad precedent on racial issues after the Civil War. It says that laws must be applied fairly, more or less.

    4. Also Congress may may not laws affecting the free exercise of religion.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *