When it comes to knowing American history, most citizens can't answer basic questions on how their government works.
For Constitution Day last September, the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania released the embarrassing results of its survey of 1,416 adults. In it, little more than a third of respondents could name all three branches of the U.S. government, and about the same number could not name a single one. More than half of the responders did not know which party controls the House and Senate.Just over a quarter of Americans knew that it takes a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate to override a presidential veto. The survey offers dramatic evidence that we need more and better civics education.In 2011, Newsweek gave 1,000 Americans the U.S. citizenship test and only 38 percent passed. An alarming number did not know basic information about the Constitution, such as it being the supreme law of the land, or that the first 10 amendments are known as the Bill of Rights.Newsweek determined that the public ignorance about what makes our government work is nothing new. NYU sociologist Dalton Conley said we have a lot of very poor people without access to good education and a huge immigrant population that doesn't even speak English.Last week Arizona became the first state in the nation to require high school students to correctly answer 60 of 100 questions on the civics portion of the U.S. citizenship test before they graduate.The test is being promoted nationally by the Scottsdale-based Joe Foss Institute, whose motto is "Patriotism Matters." A former South Dakota governor, Foss who won the Medal of Honor during World War II and died in 2003.The institute's goal is to have all 50 states adopt the test by 2017, the 230th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution. They feel this is a way to increase the understanding of basic government by students, with the hope they will be better prepared to be engaged citizens.Legislatures in 15 states are expected to consider it this year. Credit the Arizona legislators for taking the lead.Republican Arizona Senate Majority Leader Steve Yarbrough, who sponsored the bill in his chamber, said the test is no silver bullet, but it does mark a step forward.By JIM ZBICKtneditor@tnonline.com